HM Insights

Adverse Childhood Experiences and family law - making Scotland an ACE aware nation

Nadine Martin, an Associate in Harper Macleod's family law team, looks at efforts to raise awareness of and tackle the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

A group of 2,000 delegates from various sectors including law, social work, medicine, teaching, the third sector and government, as well as parents and children, convened on 26 September at the SECC to participate in the ACE Aware Nation conference.

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ACEs – adverse childhood experiences – have been proven to have a lifelong impact on children’s health and mental wellbeing as they grow into adulthood. Their impact cuts across all socio-economic classes, and childhood adversity is now understood to be one of the leading causes of everything from heart disease and cancer to substance abuse and depression.

ACEs are especially relevant in the context of justice, not only in seeing children who have experienced ACEs coming into the justice system but also when dealing with cases involving children with a view to minimising trauma for their benefit in future life.

Adverse Childhood Experiences Key messages

Nicola Sturgeon opened the conference by video link and reaffirmed the Scottish Government’s commitment to “making Scotland an ACE aware nation”.

Keynote speaker, Dr Nadine Burke Harris, an American paediatrician who has championed ACE awareness in America and throughout the world, praised Scotland’s journey to becoming an ACE aware nation as “absolutely remarkable”.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney told delegates that no matter what the political leadership in Scotland, the focus and “moral obligation” should be on getting it right for every child. He emphasised the need to work across government, professional and portfolio lines to counteract and prevent the effect of ACEs. He spoke of various strategies including having a trauma-informed workforce so that people can see, recognise and intervene to prevent ACEs when they encounter them. “We can’t stop adversity happening, but we can do our best to minimise unnecessary adversity, and when adversity does happen intervene at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Other speakers included Mary Glasgow, interim CEO of Children 1st, Scotland’s national children’s charity who spoke of the work that the charity has done to support parents, and Nicky Stuart, headteacher of a pioneering primary school in Carnoustie, where children are taught in a trauma-informed way with exceptional results.

Grounds for hope

The overall message was one of hope and that ACEs can and should be tackled and overcome, no matter the age or situation of the person. As Dr Burke Harris explained: “When we think about childhood adversity it feels scary ... understanding this science feels fundamentally hopeful.”

A key message from Dr Burke Harris to all professionals was “Start where you are. Do what you can.”

After the conference, Suzanne Zeedyk, author of the article “When four ACEs is a bad hand”, (Journal, June 2018) reiterated how important ACE awareness is in the legal profession: “We need lawyers (and everybody else) who are able and willing to feel these things – because they don’t let their job disconnect them from their own humanity.”

Get in touch

To get in touch about raising ACES awareness in the legal profession please get in touch.


This article originally appeared in on the website of The Journal of the Law Society of Scotland