Do traumatic events in childhood have to negatively direct the course of someone’s life? The Virginia General Assembly will help answer that question during the 2019 session, which starts January 9.
Unfortunately, 19 percent of kids in Virginia have experienced two or more adverse childhood experiences (known as ACEs) – things like abuse, death of a parent, domestic violence, or poverty. A growing body of research tells us that ACEs, particularly when they accumulate, can have profound, lifelong consequences on physical and mental health. Higher rates of suicide, substance abuse, diabetes, and heart disease are just some of the poor health outcomes tied to the occurrence of multiple ACEs.
The good news is that research also points to solutions. The negative effects of adversity can be offset by responsive relationships with caregivers and community-level support for these children and their families. In addition to helping children who have endured ACEs through therapy and appropriate health care, we can create trauma-informed systems and institutions to help children.
What does this look like? For the first time this year, advocates are presenting the General Assembly with a unified legislative agenda addressing trauma to help guide lawmakers’ decision-making. This unified agenda includes policy recommendations related to education, child welfare, and mental health, as well as community-level trauma prevention measures.
Students who are experiencing violence at home or in their neighborhoods or who are dealing with a parent’s mental illness or incarceration bring that stress to school. They may have trouble concentrating or act out with behaviors that are inappropriate in school, but actually help them cope outside of school. Because so many children have experienced adversity, education policy needs to address this reality by providing training for school personnel in recognizing trauma and how to best respond to it. With training, teachers, school resource officers, and administrators can learn how to respond effectively, so when trauma is present, it can be addressed and appropriate consequences administered. School counselors also play a key role in addressing students’ needs during the school day.
The unified agenda makes recommendations to improve the school environment. First, advocates recommend requiring school resource officers to receive training in trauma-informed care, so students who violate school policies are not unnecessarily routed to the juvenile justice system. Second, advocates recommend increasing funding so school counselors can play a bigger role in students’ success. This could be achieved by lowering the ratio in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grades to one counselor per 250 students (from about one to every 425) and requiring counselors to spend a minimum of 80 percent of their time providing direct counseling services.
Children and youth who come into the foster care system almost always have experienced trauma – some form of abuse or neglect or parental substance use. Being removed from their homes, even when necessary, is yet another traumatic event. New federal legislation passed in 2018, the Family First Prevention Services Act, recognizes the benefit to children and families when help is provided as soon as possible and allows states to use these funds for prevention. The unified agenda calls for Virginia’s policymakers to implement this federal law by investing in evidence-based services for these families to prevent further trauma and help families address underlying mental health, substance use, or parenting issues.
When children experience mental health problems, getting them appropriate and timely treatment is essential. Unfortunately, in Virginia, that has often been difficult because of long waiting lists and a lack of therapists and other mental health professionals who are trained to treat children and adolescents.
The unified agenda recommends two policy steps to continue to address the issue of access to high-quality mental health care. First, advocates recommend funding more children’s mental health crisis services as Virginia continues to build out its public mental health system through an initiative called STEP-VA. This means that in a crisis, families living in all regions of Virginia would have access to therapists who could help prevent unnecessary hospitalization.
Second, advocates recommend funding a new program called the Virginia Mental Health Access Project (VMAP) to improve the ability of pediatricians and other primary care physicians to treat children’s mental health conditions effectively. The project has received some support through a federal grant, but additional funds would allow primary care doctors to receive mental health training and would create a network of child psychiatrists (who are in short supply) to be available for consultation throughout the state.
Parents are children’s first teachers, but we don’t receive an instruction manual on how to do our jobs, do we? Local organizations such as Families Forward and Family Lifeline help new parents navigate challenges, especially parents in high-stress situations such as those living in poverty or who are young and/or single. These home-visiting services educate parents on children’s health and development, which can lead to better outcome for kids. Even if those children experience ACEs, strong bonds with parents and other caregivers nurtured through these programs can buffer the negative effect. The unified agenda recommends that Virginia continue to find ways to fund services that educate and assist parents in their critical role to prevent trauma and mitigate the effects of adverse childhood experiences.
Finally, advocates recognize the importance of coming together as communities to educate and support one another around the impact of trauma and ways to address it. The Richmond region, which is served by the Trauma-Informed Community Network led by Greater Richmond SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now), brings together hundreds of nonprofit, for-profit, and government professionals to implement trauma-informed practices throughout the greater Richmond area.
The unified agenda includes a recommendation that the state provide additional seed funding to be matched with private funds to increase the number of trauma-informed community networks throughout Virginia.
Virginia’s lawmakers have a chance to develop policies in 2019 that will benefit a generation of children throughout their lifetimes. As child advocates, let’s encourage them to take advantage of this important opportunity.
If you would like to learn more about policies that can reduce childhood trauma and improve family resilience, visit vakids.org. To learn more or get involved in Richmond’s Trauma-Informed Community Network, go to grscan.com.