State Dropping Ball in Dealing With Childhood Trauma, New Report Says

The lowest of 31 grades issued in the 2016 California Children’s Report Card released on Wednesday was for dealing with the effects of childhood trauma.

In Children Now’s biennial assessment of the status of California kids, researchers gave the state a “D-” for how it deals with childhood trauma. The report contends that children who experience traumatic problems such as abuse, neglect and witnessing violence at home can suffer serious long-term consequences, including health problems like diabetes and mental health challenges such as depression.

Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, a national advocacy organization based in California, said the key issue for legislators, policy makers and the public to glean from the report is that too many kids live in poverty in California.

“When you talk about trauma issues, the same truth carries over like it does in so many other parts of a kids life — education, health care, mental health. The reality is that parents can’t do it all alone, and it costs money to get help,” Lempert said.

“We know the devastating impact poverty has on kids affecting a range of outcomes, from health, to brain development, to their chances of success in school,” Lempert wrote in the report’s introduction. “Over four million California children come from low-income households, and more than two million live below the poverty line. Those numbers are too big to ignore.”

Other Areas Earned Higher Grades

In other areas, the state earned better grades: health insurance got an “A-“; preschool opportunities got a “B-“; and placement stability for kids in the state’s foster children program got a “C.”

The report said areas where lawmakers focused long-term attention and state resources — such as expanding Medi-Cal and including undocumented children in coverage — saw significant improvement over the past couple of years.

In other areas that have not received the same attention, the report issued lower grades such as a “D+” in oral health, a “D” for teacher training and evaluation and a “D” in infant and toddler care.

New Attention to Childhood Trauma

Assessing and dealing with long-term health effects of childhood trauma have received new attention and funding in recent months.

Health care experts say people with high ACE scores — a measure of adverse childhood experiences — are more likely to experience asthma, kidney disease, pulmonary disease, stroke, depression, dementia and substance abuse. ACE indicators include abuse, neglect, going hungry or having an absent parent. 

Two California counties — San Diego and Sonoma — are among 14 communities nationwide receiving grant funding to broaden the diagnosis, care and treatment of patients who have high ACE scores — a relatively new indicator of poor health outcomes later in life.

The national project, launched by the Health Federation of Philadelphia with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the California Endowment, aims to share best practices and try new approaches to treating patients with high ACE scores.

In several parts of California, local efforts are under way to deal with childhood trauma.

The Tara Health Foundation last fall awarded a $4.8 million grant to the Bay Area Research Consortium on Toxic Stress and Health to study the effect childhood stress or traumatic events, such as domestic abuse, has on a child’s health. The consortium includes UC-San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, UC-San Francisco and the Center for Youth Wellness.

A new organization — T2 (for Trauma Transformed) — is working to create a system of trauma-informed care in seven Bay Area counties  using grant funding, including a grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to the seven counties.

Putting ‘Money, Policy Where Their Mouth Is’

“The question for a lot of these issues isn’t ‘What do we do,'” Lempert said. “We know what to do and there are a lot of great local programs around the state working on good solutions. It’s a question of scaling them, of getting a statewide effort defined and funded,” Lempert said.

Lempert urged legislators and policymakers to “stop saying kids are a priority only as lip service and put your money and your policy where your mouth is and actually make kids a priority.”

Paying attention to ACE scores and trying to reduce their influence on health is only one of many areas children’s wellbeing needs to be addressed in California, Lempert said. But it’s an area that can influence other parts of life.

“Children experiencing traumatic events can have difficulty functioning in all areas of their lives,” he said. “Trauma can impede emotional well-being, impact school performance and set kids up for a lifetime of health problems. California must do more to assess children for trauma and find them the help they need to heal.”

State investments in critical areas like trauma will save money in the long term, Lempert said.

“Kids with traumatic childhoods are more likely to become adults who need extra resources in everything from mental health, to employment, to criminal justice involvement. Providing kids with trauma assessment and support isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do economically.”

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