“Childhood trauma is a huge factor within the criminal justice system,” said Christopher Wildeman, a sociologist at Cornell University and co-director of the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect. “It is among the most important things that shapes addictive and criminal behavior in adulthood.”
Mr. Sullivan was one of 10 newly released prisoners in Connecticut whom the PBS series “Frontline” and The New York Times followed for more than a year. The state is working to reduce its prison population and improve former prisoners’ chances of successfully rejoining society. But those convicted of crimes often have complex problems that date back to childhood. More than half, including Mr. Sullivan, went back inside.
A look at their histories showed that long before they were perpetrators, many of them were victims. Seven completed a questionnaire intended to quantify childhood trauma on a scale of one to 10, including the experience of or exposure to physical and sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse or mental illness in the home. High scores predict a wide variety of negative outcomes. All but one of them scored four or more, indicating a substantially elevated risk of chronic disease, depression, suicide attempts, substance abuse and violence.
Mr. Sullivan scored a nine.
Bald with blue eyes, wearing his mother’s silver cross around his neck, Mr. Sullivan, 43, has two tears tattooed under his right eye, an intimate reminder of death. One is for his mother, who died of a heroin overdose when he was 21; the second is for a cousin, as close as a sister, who overdosed four years later.
What Mr. Sullivan saw, he eventually imitated. During one of Mr. Sullivan’s many trips to jail, he said, he passed his father, a fellow inmate, in the hallway.
His mother was unpredictable. “I remember her sleeping all the time, nodding out and burning holes in the floor,” he said. At first, this seemed normal. “I used to wonder why I couldn’t have a friend sleep over,” he said. “Then it was, I didn’t want to have a friend sleep over.”
He took his first sip of beer at 12 or 13 years old. By the time he was 19 — three years after quitting high school — he was, by his own estimation, a full-blown alcoholic, guzzling a 12-pack of Budweiser daily.
For the longest time, he resisted the temptation to try heroin. But so many of his friends were using. “I fell in love with the feeling of it,” he said. “It was calming and numbing and soothing, like a warm embrace.”
Mr. Sullivan has survived almost two decades of drug and alcohol use, cycling among short-term jobs, arrests and rehab. But the pattern has taken a toll: his relationship with his three oldest children — ages 23, 21 and 17 — is tumultuous, mostly because he was an absent father. He owes about $100,000 in child support.
With Raeann, the youngest, he wanted things to be different. Though jail often kept them apart, Mr. Sullivan doted on his daughter and tried to shield her from his habits and temper. He called her “Chewy” and “Peanut,” drew her elaborate pictures and texted her every day from the halfway house where he went after his release from prison.
But he hated the restrictions of life there, with his whereabouts and spending closely monitored. Finally he walked out, even though he knew it would mean a return to prison.
Before he turned himself in, he took his last paycheck and treated Raeann to the pair of silver high-tops with fuchsia laces that she wanted for her first basketball game.
“The sneakers were important to both of us,” he said. “And I wanted to see her play.”
Outside the store, there was a tearful goodbye. “You know you can tell me anything,” he said.
But Raeann was getting older. More mature. More perceptive.
When Mr. Sullivan missed her 10th birthday because he was locked up, she was forgiving. When she turned 11, he was out of jail, and the family had a birthday party. One year later, as her 12th birthday neared, Raeanne finally got a good, hard look at her father’s other side.
In the mid-1990s, Dr. Vincent Felitti, the chief of Kaiser Permanente’s obesity clinic, and Dr. Robert Anda, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control developed 10 questions to assess cumulative childhood stress called the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE, survey. The higher the ACE score, the higher the risk of negative outcomes: Among those who scored at least four, there was a 1,220 percent increase in suicide attempts over those who scored zero.
“This clearly showed children’s adverse experiences are a public health problem,” Dr. Anda said. “What we now know is that childhood adversity and stress can chemically change the way our brains work.”
The changes can affect impulse control, decision making and executive functions. From there, it can be a short hop to breaking the law.
But treatment can be complicated, and patients often resist it. Scientists have been testing the theory that higher levels of childhood trauma make recovery from addiction more difficult. They are developing approaches that capitalize on the brain’s ability to rewire itself.
Some schools, hospitals and jails have incorporated this emerging understanding of trauma, shifting the question from “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”
In Connecticut, the Department of Correction offers a program to help inmates understand how trauma changes the normal stress response and how to control triggers (the program is still small, and Mr. Sullivan was not a participant). Studies show that childhood trauma increases the likelihood of arrest and that inmates report much higher rates of trauma than other adults.
“It is safe to assume that the people I deal with have experienced some kind of horrible trauma as children and adults, so for me, that is a starting point,” said Katherine Montoya, a 10-year veteran parole officer in Connecticut who works with women.
For one parolee who had been the victim of sex trafficking, Ms. Montoya worked to avoid triggering the woman’s trauma by making sure she came in contact only with women officers.
In May 2016, after serving his time following the halfway house incident, Mr. Sullivan walked out of the Enfield Correctional Institution. For about nine months, he did well, living with Raeann and her mother, Kelly Shepard, 44, whom he has known since middle school. (While it was not possible to independently verify some of Mr. Sullivan’s accounts of his childhood, Ms. Shepard said they were consistent with what he had told her.)
He found work with a construction company, and managed to shield Raeann from the worst of his temper.
But in February, there came a bad blowup. He called Raeann and Ms. Shepard nasty names. He smashed Ms. Shepard’s cellphone.
Raeann stopped speaking to her father.
“She idolizes him. But she finally saw the other side of him, when he drinks, and she is really angry now,” said Ms. Shepard, who keeps a close watch on her daughter and makes sure she is in counseling. “He adores her, but he can’t get himself together long enough to maintain the relationship.”
Mr. Sullivan checked himself into Lebanon Pines, a rural 56-acre residential rehab facility for men. Six years before, he had been required to come to Lebanon Pines as a condition of probation. This time was voluntary. He received therapy and daily doses of methadone.
But he refused to talk in depth about his childhood trauma. And he struggles to explain why. “I just haven’t wanted to go there,” he said. “It’s painful.”
Mr. Sullivan had two decades on many fellow patients at Lebanon Pines. He was banking on his age and the high cost of street life being enough to finally break the generational cycle. Still, about six weeks before his release date, he was worried that he might not make it.
“I have never followed through on anything in my life,” he said, tears in his eyes. “It’s hard. I know if I end up back in the streets I will end up drinking and using again.”
Mr. Sullivan was right. He did not finish the program.
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