A network news headline came across the internet that caught our eyes: “California’s first surgeon general: Screen every student for childhood trauma.” The quote was attributed to one of the strongest advocates for addressing the epidemic of childhood trauma, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. An American pediatrician, Dr. Burke Harris is the first and current surgeon general of California and is known for linking adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress with harmful effects to health later on in people’s life.
Screening every student for childhood trauma will most likely be a shock to the entire state’s population, especially parents, educators, health care professionals and just about anyone who cares about kids and families.
We know from our very tiny sample of adverse childhood experiences surveying in Las Cruces that out of our four advanced placement psychology courses in a mixed-income high school, three-quarters of the students scored 3 or more in adverse childhood experiences. Some students were scoring 4-10, which means that students like shy and withdrawn 17-year-old “Marie” and fragile and constantly anxious 16-year-old “Samuel” have endured (or are enduring) a world of pain.
They and their fellow students encounter various forms of adverse childhood experiences in their homes that include physical, emotional or sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; living in households where parents and other adults are misusing substances, have mental health challenges or are in domestic violence situations; where the parents are becoming separated or divorced; or are engaged in activities leading to incarceration.
This is not what childhood was supposed to be. It’s not how we grow a generation of thriving students and future workers. The consequences of adverse childhood experiences are costly, both emotionally and financially. Name a social problem and most likely it can track back to childhood trauma. This would include all forms of substance misuse.
Up until now, most cases of adverse childhood experiences have flown under the radar of child protective services, health care providers and the schools. With California’s bold idea to test for adverse childhood experiences, that might change.
Here in New Mexico, we have a plan to address abuse, neglect and all the adverse childhood experiences leading to traumatized students and parents struggling with untreated trauma. The Anna, Age Eight Institute was founded to implement a data-driven, cross-sector and county-focused prevention strategy across 33 counties. Our work is based on our years of research in what it takes to raise trauma-free and thriving children and is documented in our book, Anna, Age Eight: The data-driven prevention of childhood trauma and maltreatment.
We know, even without a statewide survey of students, trauma is very real. We also know how to prevent and treat trauma by ensuring that 10 vital services are available to create a seamless system of care and safety — called surviving and thriving services in our book — for all families at all socio-economic levels. We are currently piloting our prevention projects in the counties of Doña Ana, Rio Arriba and Socorro. A summit on trauma-free and thriving children is being sponsored Dec. 3 in Las Cruces, where we will showcase our work thus far. Lt. Gov. Howie Morales will be our first featured speaker.
We applaud the courage and compassion of Dr. Burke Harris for her bold thinking to make all Californians aware of the magnitude of trauma. A proposal to survey for adverse childhood experiences is not without controversy and unintended consequences. With results in hand, the question will be, “What do we do now?” We offer our data-driven and result-focused prevention plan to our neighbors to the west once they document how pervasive and damaging trauma is.
Katherine Ortega Courtney, Ph.D., co-directs (with Dominic Cappello) the Anna, Age Eight Institute and their book, Anna, Age Eight, may be downloaded free of charge at AnnaAgeEight.org.