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Will County Health Department discusses ACES

Will County Health Department Manager of Child and Adolescent Services Michelle Zambrano (top), and Director of Clinical Training Dr. Rita Gray (bottom) stressed the importance of "taking a village to raise a child' and paying attention to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES).
Will County Health Department Manager of Child and Adolescent Services Michelle Zambrano (top), and Director of Clinical Training Dr. Rita Gray (bottom) stressed the importance of "taking a village to raise a child' and paying attention to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES).

During Children’s Mental Health Awareness Month in May, two experts from the Will County Health Department’s behavioral health division

Licensed Psychologist and Registered Nurse Dr. Rita Gray, director of clinical training for WCHD Behavioral Health, stressed the importance of paying attention to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES).

As Gray said in a news release, “ACES are incidents than can change the neuro-pathways in your brain. And those changes cannot just be immediately ‘put back’ to where they were before.”

These ACES incidents can be anything from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; neglect; witnessing domestic violence and drug use; having a household member (often these days from an extended family) incarcerated, and so much more.

If undiagnosed or untreated, these ACES can lead to adults with a “low life potential;” with difficulties such as lower academic achievement, lower economic success, and relationship problems, Gray said in a news release.

Recent Will County Health statistics released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed that despite Will County’s placement as ninth in the state in “health outcomes” and 23rd in the state in “health factors,” there are some “factors” contributing to ACES that definitely need work.

Those Will County numbers showed 10 percent of children living in poverty. Statistics from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) show that proximity to the poverty level is very important.

While 46 percent of U.S. youth under 18 have at least one ACE, that figure jumps up to 62 percent for households living at up to 200 percent of the poverty line.

The Will County numbers also showed 23 percent of Will County children living in single parent households. Michele Zambrano, manager of child and adolescent services for WCHD Behavioral Health, said this can be a definite factor when it comes to inability or lack of time to deal with ACES that occur at school.

In a news release Gray said single parents may not have time to really comprehend a problem their children might be having at school.

“Years ago,” Zambrano said in a news release, “If you were having trouble at school, you could escape at home. But now, ‘the Boogyman’ isn’t just ‘out there,’ he’s ‘everywhere.’

"The kids simply cannot avoid the social media world. Even if someone is not on his or her mobile device, someone else could be sharing a negative rumor or picture about them, and they will certainly hear about it later.”

Gray recalled a study of two sisters in an abusive home whop were helped because they often went to another home for hours, and that home became their “surrogate family.”

But if a troubled child is not fortunate enough to have something like that, they often will turn to negative solutions for comfort, such as joining a gang or self-cutting.

What can be done to slow down these problems? Both Zambrano and Gray point to funding, available personnel, education and good parenting.

One area where progress has been seen is with the WCHD’s involvement with the YESS program (Youth Empowerment Strategies for Success) at the Joliet Township High School District.

Under the program, a counselor from the health department office is stationed full-time at both Joliet Central and Joliet West High Schools. Gray said that not only can this “nip a problem in the bud” before it grows, it also helps families.

Statistics released by the Joliet Township High School District after a decade of the Y.E.S.S. program did indeed show that many problems were likely stopped before they got worse.

For example, district on-campus fighting incidents in 2005 totaled 336, but were down to 104 a decade later. In addition, assaults had dropped from 338 to 248, and expulsions had fallen from 110 to 36.

“Without a program like this,” Gray said in a news release, “the parent has to take time off work to take the student for treatment. Then, the student misses part of the school day.Our counselors see the students during elective or study hall periods; and not during Math, Science, English, or Social Studies classes. Numbers show nothing but positives from this.”

In conclusion, Zambrano and Gray both feel that better “team effort” among all adults would really help.

"It’s no surprise to hear that better parenting is a good first step," Zambrano said in a news release. "You hear so often about kids being able to learn how to lose. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of understanding that life is not perfectly fair.

"For example, if a mom scoops spaghetti noodles onto a pair of plates for her two kids, she doesn’t need to make sure both kids have 14 noodles! She should teach her kids to simply be thankful for the food that was prepared for them. Sometimes one kid gets a couple more noodles, sometimes the other does. That’s how life works.”

Zambrano also said people need to stop being afraid of overstepping their boundaries.

"If another child is seen doing something wrong or dangerous, let’s not be afraid to say something," she said in a news release. "And at the same time, as a society, let’s stop picking on each other, constantly looking for something to call the police about. Instead, let’s really live the theory of 'It Takes a Village.'"

For more information on parenting advice concerning ACES, visit

For more on Will County Health Department programs, visit

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