The Associations between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Social Services Use among Head Start-Eligible Low-Income Families

Aug 8, 2022


Social workers spend a tremendous amount of time and resources developing interventions to help serve disadvantaged families and individuals. It is critical to know what barriers are impacting participants from enrolling in programs since if people are not enrolling, then the positive benefits of those programs go unprovided. Social services use is a critical aspect in the field, and the current study seeks to better understand the relationship between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and social services use.

ACEs can be understood as traumatic events that occur during one’s childhood, and the number of ACEs that an individual experiences has been correlated to increased physical and psychological health disorders. People with higher ACEs are increasingly in need of social services to help decrease these negative consequences; however, little research has been conducted regarding if the number of ACEs a person has impacts their social services use. Additionally, it is unclear if enrolling in programs like Head Start that seek to connect families to additional resources increases social services utilization.

An article recently published in the journal Health & Social Work, co-published by NASW and Oxford University Press seeks to address this issue.

The article discusses a study which examined the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on parental social services use among Head Start-eligible low-income families. Based on the Head Start Impact Study data, three questions were addressed:

  1. Does the number of ACEs impact parental social services use?
  2. Do family characteristics have any association with parental social services use? And
  3. Does parental social services use differ between Head Start and non–Head Start parents?

Regression indicated that parents with more ACEs tended to use more social services. Compared with parents with one ACE, parents with two ACEs and parents with three or more ACEs used more social services with income assistance, food and nutrition assistance, and housing and utility assistance programs. Parents with three or more ACEs tended to use more social services related to alcohol and drug use, mental health, and foster care payments than parents with one ACE.

Barriers to social services use were identified and include racial disparities, native language, immigration status, and geographical location. Head Start was not found to have a significant impact on whether parents used more social services.

Recommendations include increasing effective collaboration between social workers and services, assessing barriers to receiving services, and implementing ACE screenings.

Study authors:

  • Kyunghee Lee, PhD, Associate Professor, School of Social Work, Michigan State University
  • Cassandra Lawton, MSW, student, School of Social Work, Michigan State University

The journal Social Work is a benefit of NASW membership. It is available online or, at a member’s request, in print. Children & Schools, Health & Social Work and Social Work Research are available by subscription at a discounted rate for NASW members, either online or in print. You can find out more about the journals and subscriptions at this link.



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