happened to their parents when they were children, or trauma or adverse experiences (e.g.,
violence) happens regularly in their neighborhood. 113
Moving beyond families, communities as a whole can experience trauma. As noted by
the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
Just as with the trauma of an individual or family, a community may be subjected
to a community-threatening event, have a shared experience of the event, and
have an adverse, prolonged effect. Whether the result of a natural disaster (e.g., a
flood, a hurricane or an earthquake) or an event or circumstances inflicted by one
group on another (e.g., usurping homelands, forced relocation, servitude, or mass
incarceration), the resulting trauma is often transmitted from one generation to
the next in a pattern often referred to as historical, community, or
intergenerational trauma. 114
This does not mean that every person living in that community suffers from PTSD but it could
affect how that community collectively raises its children. Youth might learn at a young age that
the rest of society is threatening and not to be trusted. 115
In addition, new research demonstrates that the intergenerational transmission of trauma
may actually occur at a genetic level. While a discussion of epigenetics is beyond the scope of
this article, the basic point is that extreme stress can affect an individual’s genetic structure. 116
Epigenetics is the study of how certain genes are expressed (turned on or off). 117 The
environment (particularly stress and trauma) affects when and how a particular gene is
expressed. 118 Thus, stress directly affects the cellular functioning of an individual, and that
individual can then pass this functioning on to his or her offspring. 119 Therefore, trauma can
cause difficulties for generations of children and for the public sector agencies having to deal
with them. 120
5. The three E’s summarized
Child trauma is a new and developing field of study. There are many definitions of child
trauma but most can be understood within the framework of the ‘Three E’s,” examining the
events, the emotional experience of these events, and the lasting effects. The DSM- 5 has an
entire section on Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders, including PTSD as well as several other
113 See CHILD WELFARE COMM., NAT’L CHILD TRAUMATIC STRESS NETWORK, BIRTH PARENTS WITH TRAUMA HISTORIES AND THE
CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM: A GUIDE FOR CHILD WELFARE STAFF 1 (2013),
http://nctsn.org/sites/default/files/assets/pdfs/birth_parents_trauma_history_fact_sheet_final.pdf; CHILD WELFARE COMM., NAT’L
CHILD TRAUMATIC STRESS NETWORK, BIRTH PARENTS WITH TRAUMA HISTORIES AND THE CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM: A GUIDE FOR
RESOURCE PARENTS 1 (2013), http://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/assets/pdfs/birth_parents_trauma_resource_parent_final.pdf.
114 Defining Trauma, supra note 61.
115 See Tracy & Johnson, supra note 110.
116 Epigenetics, PBS ONLINE, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/education/body/epigenetics.html (last visited Sept. 3, 2013); see Divya
Mehta et al., Childhood Maltreatment is Associated with Distinct Genomic and Epigenetic Profiles in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,
110 PNAS 8203, 8304 (2012), available at www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1217750110; Joshua B. Johnson, PTSD and
Epigenetic Research: Decentering the Physical Body, 21 J. AGGRESSION, MALTREATMENT & TRAUMA 45, 45-66 (2012); Karestan C.
Koenen et al., Gene-Environment Interaction in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Review, Strategy and New Directions for Future
Research, 258 EUR. ARCHIVES ON PSYCHIATRY & CLINICAL NEUROSCIENCE 82, 84 (2008), available at
117 See Johnson, supra note 116, at 46 (describing the epigenetic process as “a process through which experience modifies physical
makeup, such as the function of the central nervous system, manifested through changes in cellular, neural circuitry, DNA, molecular,
and behavioral aspects”).
118 See supra note 116 and accompanying text.
120 Johnson, supra note 116; see Koenen et al., supra note 116, at 83-84.