A Kansas-licensed social worker, Vanessa Lohf was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, where she still lives and works in public health by facilitating the Trauma-Informed Systems of CareInitiatives (TISC) teamat the Wichita State University Community Engagement Institute. She also manages the Kansas ACEsConnection network, where she regularly posts about news and resources for communities and organizations throughout the state.
Lohf says that Wichita is known as the “Aircraft Capital of the World.” “We have every aircraft manufacturer you can think of…Boeing, Spirit,” she says. Her father worked for Learjet, now Bombardier Aerospace, for 40 years, and her mother worked for a local billiards company in her later years. When she was two, her parents divorced, and her mother remarried when Lohf was 11. Her new family includes a half-sister, who was starting first grade when Lohf went off to study psychology at Wichita State University.
But after discovering that psychology seemed focused more on therapy and required additional years of college to get licensed, she decided to switch majors to earn a bachelor’s in social work. “I’ve always liked helping people and social work has a broader scope so I felt I could be more effective,” she says.
And she was. She spent 11 years with a Kansas child welfare agency, working with children with severe emotional disturbances who were in foster care and with their families. Her team collaborated with a local community mental health center trying to get children removed from state hospitals and transferred back into the community. During this period, in the 1990s, she studied the work of Dr. Bruce Perry — whose investigations predate the ACE Study — about how child abuse affects brain development.
ACEs comes from The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experience Study of more than 17,000 adults, which was first published in 1998, linked 10 types of childhood adversity — such as living with a parent who is mentally ill, has abused alcohol or is emotionally abusive — to the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. Many other types of ACEs— including racism, bullying, a father being abused, and community violence — have been added to subsequent ACE surveys.
The ACE Study found that the higher someone’s ACE score — the more types of childhood adversity a person experienced — the higher their risk of social, economic, health and civic consequences. The study found that most people (64%) have at least one ACE; 12% of the population has an ACE score of 4 or higher. Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent.
Around 2010, after she left the child welfare agency and had moved on to community and organizational development efforts, Lohf learned about ACEs science. Her reaction was immediate: “Welcome to what the child welfare world has known for a very long time.”
She adds that the child welfare agency she worked for early in her career wasn’t aware of all the physical health outcomes — such as correlations of high ACEs to significantly higher rates of heart disease, cancer, depression, and destructive behaviors such as drinking — confirmed by the ACE Study.
But in the past five or six years, because of her work at the Center for Public Health Initiatives, she has witnessed the true impact of childhood trauma revealed by bothPerry’s neurosequential model and ACEs science. That impact is apparent in evidence from the state’s public health department, primary care clinics, churches, schools, and other community organizations. In all these arenas, the TISC team leader holds trainings on ACEs, resilience, and trauma-informed systems of care. The goal is to help organizations, communities, and government agencies figure out practices and policies to help families develop resilience as well as identify ways to prevent ACEs in the first place.
“Foundational training – how we can create community resilience to prevent ACEs initially – comes first,” she stresses. The team also provides technical support to set up infrastructures for implementing trauma-informed practice. And since last year, she moderates the Kansas site on ACEsConnection.com, where she encourages ACEs initiatives in the state’s communitiesto set up their own community site, and where she also researches and posts resources.
More recently, because of the COVID-19 crisis, Lohf’s role has expanded. She is researching answers for the state’s COVID-19 hotline and giving tips on how to manage people who call in and appear to be distraught so that responders learn how not to trigger trauma when answering callers’ questions and also maintain their own mental health.
One of her posts on the Kansas ACEsConnection page — in response to the challenges those dealing with the public concern about the pandemic are facing — is about being kind to people making really hard decisions. “We are trying to infuse trauma-informed practices into our advice.”
Lohf, who is part of what is primarily a two-person team, says they are not yet quantifying the impact of their ACEs training, which Wichita State University’s Community Engagement Institute has been conducting for the past 10 years. However, “We encourage and assist the organizations we support to do self-assessments to track their own progress.” And she does measure the impact her team has had on the state’s communities and organizations in another way: by the growing number of people who are asking for the team’s help.
“We didn’t start tracking our work in a formalized way until mid-2018,” she notes, “so I don’t have a good way to report the increase. I can tell you that we increased the number of organizations/communities that we have established long-term relationships with (more than just intro training) from one in 2017 to seven in 2019 and continue to build these relationships virtually since we are no longer able to travel due to the pandemic.”
She explains: “I’ve done several trainings in the last year on things like how to provide customer service that is trauma-informed. We’re getting requests from folks who have been less interested in the past and, in the last five years, more organizations and state agencies are providing funding to do this training for their partners.”
She has also worked with bilingual local community trainers who have gone on to translate ACEs training into Spanish to better serve the large population of Spanish-speaking immigrants in the western half of the state.