Women Making an Impact on CEV: Abigail Gewirtz

This month the Safe Start Center is honoring National Women’s History Month by profiling women who have made an impact on the issue of children’s exposure to violence.

Abigail Gewirtz, Ph.D., L.P. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.  Her primary interests are in trauma, resilience, and promoting children’s healthy development with two distinct but interrelated research foci: the impact of exposure to traumatic stressors on parenting and child functioning, and the development, testing, and widespread implementation of family-based interventions.

She is Principal Investigator on a National Institute of Drug Abuse-funded randomized controlled trial to develop and test a web-enhanced parenting program for National Guard families with parents returning from deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Dr. Gewirtz also directs Ambit Network, a SAMHSA/National Child Traumatic Stress Network Community Services and Treatment center focusing on the implementation of evidence-based interventions for traumatized school-aged children and their parents.

Why do you feel children’s exposure to violence and traumatic stress is an important issue and how did you get involved?

We now have a really good body of knowledge to show how damaging exposure to violence can be – to all aspects of children’s development, including emotional and behavioral adjustment, and relationships with others. But much less was known 20 years ago, when I was in graduate school. It’s thanks to not just burgeoning research, but also a spike in public awareness about children’s exposure to violence that we know and can do far more to prevent and ameliorate the impact of violence on kids, and their families.

What would you say are a few of the most valuable things you have learned through your work with ADAPT and the Ambit Network?

I keep being reminded how resilient kids are, and how much parents want to help their children through difficult transitions like the military deployment of a parent. I have learned how remarkably committed and hard-working military parents are, and how parents are so motivated to get parenting tools that can be used effectively to help promote kids’ healthy adjustment. Our early findings from our ADAPT military families study indicate that families benefit from simple parenting tools, and that these tools not only help parenting, but also improve parents’ own capacities to regulate emotions.

I also have learned that practitioners are thirsty to learn and implement empirically-supported therapy practices and tools for kids exposed to violence. It is amazing to hear testimonials from therapists, and from families, about how evidence-based trauma therapies have helped them – sometimes after several wrong turns in therapy. The work is pretty humbling, too. It takes a lot of time and resources to train people to deliver research-based practices with fidelity (i.e. to a quality standard). We were proud of our accomplishments in training over 200 Minnesota therapists to deliver evidence-based trauma treatment over the past few years. But, we realized that this number represents not even 2% of licensed mental health professionals in the state! We won’t be out of work any time soon!

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Mental Health in Young Children: Why Early Experiences Matter

We’re kicking off Mental Health Month with a discussion about how difficult situations experienced as a child can set people off on a negative path in life. Charles Zeanah, M.D. , Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Tulane University School of Medicine, and other researchers, argue that negative experiences in childhood can change the architecture of a person’s brain, setting them up for mental health problems or other issues in the future.

Below are clips of his talk for the Academic Distinction Fund’s Distinguished Speakers Series last month.

While Dr. Zeanah doesn’t specifically discuss exposure to violence, he does explain that “Adverse early experiences may have long term consequences, affecting not only mental health, but physical health… Genetics supplies the basic blue print for brain development. But experiences that the individual child has adjusts the genetic brain plan of the brain and shapes the architecture of its neuro-circuits.”

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Exposure to Violence and the Developing Brain

We grow up not really knowing the specifics of how our brain works. We try to do the simple things to protect it, like eat correctly, drink enough water to keep it and our body hydrated and wear a helmet when on a bicycle.

But there are other influences we have to protect our brain from too. Influences we may not believe can impact the physical makeup of our brains…like exposure to violence.

With physical violence, the first concern to arise with any parent or caregiver may be the physical wounds of a child, not that the violence – or prolonged exposure to any type of violence – might alter their brain, hindering development.

So this week academics and researchers try to spread the word about what our brains need, what harms them, etc. during Brain Awareness Week. In 1996, Brain Awareness Week was founded by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and European Dana Alliance for the Brain to promote the importance, progress and benefits of brain research.

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The Ohio School shooting, how we can help

The Chardon High School shooting has rocked the school, families, and the community. The Safe Start Center has a variety of resources that can help parents, teachers, teens, children, and communities cope and find a way to handle this kind of exposure to violence and trauma.

Trauma Informed Care Tip Sheets


These are resources for anyone working with children, including parents and teachers, on different ways to recognize trauma and the ways you can help.

Safe Start Center free publications for practitioners working with children and families


Please see our issue briefs 1 and 4 that can help you understand children’s exposure to violence and how school officials can identify and talk to students and parents who have been exposed to violence including school shootings.

Tools and Resources


This is an overall list of tools and resources that you can explore for further information about violence exposure and prevention.

For further information please visit our main website http://www.safestartcenter.org, or email us at info@safestartcenter.org.


Severe Traumatic Brain Injury Affects Development in Young Children

The Chart

Children who have severe traumatic brain injuries early in life may have impaired cognitive development and long-term intellectual ability as they get older, according to two small studies published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. 

The first study compared the social, intellectual, and behavioral functions of 53 children who had experienced a traumatic brain injury before the age of three, most of which were the result of falls, with 27 children of the same age who had never sustained a TBI. 

The authors write that while a severe TBI was associated with lowered intellectual function, the socioeconomic status of the child’s family may be a more powerful predictor of the child’s intellectual development.  They cannot fully explain why, but they suggest lower socioeconomic status, high parental stress and low parental involvement has an effect on a child’s recovery. 

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Traumatic Brain Injury and Juvenile Justice

We just wanted to share some information about a recent webinar conducted by Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Federal Traumatic Brain Injury program on Dec. 13, 2011. The webinar focused on the growing problems associated with Children and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in the Juvenile Justice System.

The overall goals of the webinar were to

  • Develop an understanding of the issues experienced by juveniles with TBI, including under-identification, symptoms, limited access to treatment, and recidivism;
  • Become acquainted with approaches to identification and treatment, including the critical role of partnerships; and
  • Review preliminary data showing impact of interventions and consider next steps.

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Human Trafficking: Global Phenomena. Domestic Concern.

Human Trafficking: Global Phenomena. Domestic Concern.

Over the last several years, the topic of human trafficking – or modern day slavery as many advocates call it – has captured the attention and pulled on the heart strings of the American public. U.S. citizens became indignant as they realized that slavery, something they thought fixed a century ago, was still growing in the world. Since then, countless organizations, advocacy campaigns, and fundraisers have been created to help the victims of global trafficking, especially the women and girls trafficked in our country.

Unfortunately, many people still don’t know that these same horror stories happen in their state, their county, their city. Recent reports cite that American born girls and boys are just as likely to be trafficked domestically as immigrant children. Amy Fine Collin recently wrote a story for Vanity Fair on domestic sex trafficking about two trafficked American girls, Gwen and Alicia, and the police officers, lawyers, social workers, and doctors who helped free them. “A pound of heroin or an AK-47 can be retailed once, but a young girl can be sold 10 to 15 times a day—and a “righteous” pimp confiscates 100 percent of her earnings,” Collin writes. This is an American reality, one that unfortunately is targeting younger and younger children.

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