WYTHEVILLE — Christopher Freeze was an FBI special agent in charge of the Jackson, Mississippi, division when he was asked to go to a high school to see about helping some young men make better choices.
The school was in a run-down part of town. The door was dented, the windows cracked, paint peeled from the walls. He sat down with 10 students in the library.
What disturbed him the most was not the state of the building, he said, but the students’ lives. One, he said, talked about being suspended and absent from school more days than he had been there.
Another said he was tired of disappointing his mom.
“A third young man touched me the most when he said, ‘I haven’t seen my father lately. He’s in jail,’” Freeze said.
It was then that Freeze said he began to learn about adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, and the effect they have on health and development — and how, when piled one on top of another, they lead to behavioral and physical illnesses.
ACES look at physical and mental abuse and what a child is exposed to in a home, such as divorce, substance use or an incarcerated parent.
Freeze is now retired from the FBI and offers training to help law enforcement become more informed about trauma. He and Becky Haas, a trauma-informed administrator for Ballad Health, spoke Monday to about 50 people including police, first responders, social workers and clergy at a workshop at ReVIDA Recovery Center.
Haas moved to Ballad after instituting trauma-informed programs at the police department in Johnson City, Tennessee, that are being replicated elsewhere.
She said the best successes come when people from many different agencies and professions are trained together about ways to support people who have experienced trauma.
“Trauma is not an excuse for drugs or crime, but it does offer an explanation,” she said.
Everyone experiences trauma, she said, but not all have experienced trauma at the hands of the people who are supposed to be their support system.
“We were trying to find new ways to bring support,” she said, citing an example of a 4-year-old who calls 911 to say Daddy is beating Mommy with a bat — but doesn’t understand when police show up and handcuff Daddy.
“Who’s on the scene besides law enforcement, to say you did the right thing by calling?” she said.
Freeze said law enforcement officers who are under daily stress should understand that kids don’t just get over traumatic experiences.
He said during his FBI career, he tracked down terrorists and was on a SWAT team. He was asked what kept him up at night.
“At the end of the day what kept me up the most at night was the physical and emotional trauma that too many of our kids face every day,” he said.
He wants people to begin approaching children with problems differently, since suspending them from school or jailing them doesn’t work.
“The good news is, things can change,” he said. Kids need safe, stable, nurturing environments and if that isn’t in the home, it can be developed elsewhere in the community.