The following op-ed, by Delegates Betsy Carr and Christopher Peace appeared in the Sunday, January 7th edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch.
When the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 10, we and our colleagues face a number of urgent needs affecting families, including keeping up with increasing demands in K-12 education, curbing the growing opioid crisis, and transforming the behavioral health system to ensure children and adults can get the right treatment at the right time.
What if we could get ahead of some of the issues confronting Virginia’s families? What if we could find a way to prevent some of the human suffering and resulting public expenditures due to academic failure, domestic abuse, substance use, and chronic health problems?
Research on the developing brain is providing some answers, and as lawmakers, we need to pay attention. Science shows that exposure to adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs, can change how the brain works.
Examples of ACEs include having a parent who has a substance-use disorder, witnessing community violence, or being sexually abused. When children feel threatened by what has happened to them, they experience trauma. Children from all types of families in every community can experience trauma, but the negative impact of traumatic experiences are limited in an otherwise supportive environment.
For some children, the adverse childhood experiences accumulate, and the effect on the brain is overwhelming.
Children who experience multiple, repeated traumas live in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze. All of us have this same bodily reaction when we are in extremely stressful situations: stress hormones flood our bodies and minds, and automatically the most primitive parts of our brains, designed to keep us alive, are activated.
When in survival mode, we are unable to use the more evolved parts our brains that can make rational decisions and plan ahead.
The brains of children who live in environments with ongoing trauma, known as toxic stress, stay in this heightened state of alert. As a result, these children may not be able to focus in school, may act out in inappropriate ways, or may withdraw emotionally from friends and family.
The long-term mental and physical health consequences of toxic stress can be devastating: As adults, people who have experienced three or more adverse experiences in childhood are four times more likely to report having poor health, seven times more likely to be an alcoholic, and 12 times more likely to die by suicide.
The good news is that ACEs do not have to dictate a child’s future. With appropriate interventions, brains can change and children can be resilient.
That’s where we come in as policymakers. We need to ensure that our public investments support parents, communities, and institutions that prevent childhood trauma whenever possible and promote resilience.
Investments on the front end of childhood, such as ensuring that children’s basic needs are met — and helping parents understand their children’s develop ment and how to prepare them for school — can save later expenditures in terms of academic remediation, incarceration, or health care expenditures for chronic, preventable illnesses.
Wise investments in young children and their parents can help produce the next generation of adult Virginians who are able to learn, work, and support their families.
Being good stewards of public resources is something both sides of the aisle can agree on. We recommend that the General Assembly and Gov.-elect Ralph Northam work together to take specific steps toward reducing childhood trauma and promoting resilience:
Continue the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, a collaboration at the highest levels of state government designed to solve complex problems affecting children. Gov. Terry McAuliffe was the first to create the Children’s Cabinet, which includes the heads of state agencies overseeing schools, health, public safety, and social services, among others.
As part of the Children’s Cabinet, establish a work group composed of public and private partners to evaluate Virginia’s policies and practices that address ACEs and promote resiliency.
Develop a framework to implement trauma-informed policy and practice across Virginia, based on research and successful models from other states.
Fund innovative practices and solutions conceived by those working directly with children experiencing toxic stress and their families. Virginia already has several community-based networks of professionals from education, health, law, and other fields who collaborate to learn more about the effects of trauma.
When science, savings, and opportunity align, it is time to act. We look forward to working with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle and with the new administration to make policy changes that will serve our commonwealth’s children better and lead to cost savings today and economic opportunity for future generations.
Betsy Carr, a Democrat, represents the 69th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christoper Peace, a Republican, represents the 97th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. Contact him at DelCPeace@house.Virginia.gov.