Why do children exposed to the same level of adversity in childhood have different outcomes? Why do some thrive and others become completely damaged? These were the kinds of burning questions that prompted filmmaker Roger Weisberg to produce the documentary Broken Places, which was shown in a private screening at the 2018 National ACEs Conference in San Francisco.
The film delves into the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that each of the adults profiled in it endured first as children. And we see it intergenerationally. What’s remarkable about Broken Places is that we’re not hearing about those histories; we seethose pasts unfold through archival footage culled from Weisberg’s earlier documentaries.
There’s the adult Bobby now, sitting next to his mother Yvonne, who had struggled as a single mother raising five children close in age with little support. As we see footage of her as a young mother with her young children -- including Bobby -- vying for her attention, the older Yvonne recounts how she struggled with depression and feeling overwhelmed and isolated. She talks about how her children learned to ride bikes inside because of danger in their neighborhood, and that they all knew to drop to the floor at the sound of gunshots ringing through the air.
Yvonne recounts how she first became worried about Bobby when at a young age he began to hit himself repeatedly in the face, and was deemed out of control at school. The adult Bobby, who like his mother is on social security disability insurance, talks about his struggles with anger, his brushes with the law, and his hospitalizations for mental health problems.
And Broken Placesalso traces the trajectories of others who also experienced profoundly traumatic childhoods, but were able to weather their experiences. And we get a sense of the different forces that may have helped each of them find a way out of their pasts.
Significantly, Weisberg is careful to look at ACEs through a wider lens. We hear from scientists and clinicians who are on the forefront of research around ACEs and resilience. And we also hear about community-based programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), which for decades has made a difference in children’s and families’ lives, and has the data to show it. Its programs have shepherded children from infancy through to college in a neighborhood not unlike the neighborhood in the Bronx where its President and CEO Geoffrey Canada grew up. He tells us that because of ACEs -- including racism and violence -- most of his peers didn’t make it past their 40s. As an example of how the HCZ has turned around lives, Canada points to the 96 percent of high school seniors in their programs who were accepted into college.
Broken Places was shown to a packed room at the National ACEs Conference to those working to prevent or mitigate the impact of ACEs. It provides a much-needed vehicle for showing the longitudinal impact of ACEs, a deep dive into the subtle and significant forces that contribute to a child thriving or not, a thorough examination of the systemic underpinnings necessary to tackle and prevent ACES, and it makes a convincing case of why we are morally obligated to do so.
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