“What’s wrong with you?”
That’s a common question we ask when children act in a self-destructive manner. Perhaps they’re being disruptive in class, misbehaving regularly, hurting themselves, or even having violent thoughts.
A growing body of research suggests “what’s wrong with you?” is actually the incorrect question. The better one is: “What happened to you?”
It has been widely known traumatic experiences suffered early in life — known as adverse childhood experiences — can leave deep emotional scars. But studies now show the effects of trauma can be even more profound than previously believed. These experiences can disrupt healthy development, and change a child’s brain architecture in ways that impact behavior and health throughout life.
Recognized adverse childhood experiences include child abuse and neglect, death of a parent, having a parent with a mental illness, an incarcerated parent or caregiver, substance use and family violence. Sadly, it’s estimated that 24 percent of Texas children have experienced multiple adverse experiences.
That’s a serious public health crisis that requires a cross-systems, comprehensive strategy to solve.
To that end, I’ve partnered with TexProtects (Prevent Child Abuse Texas) to make that vision a reality by authoring House Bill 4183 to address the challenges that adverse experiences pose to our children.
Adverse experiences are often cumulative — exposure to one increases the likelihood of exposure to others. Researchers have found compound exposure increases the likelihood of suicide, depression, substance use, obesity, smoking and leading causes of early death such as stroke, heart attack, cancer and diabetes.
Among Texas children with multiple adverse experiences, 17.2 percent have repeated a school grade (compared to 2.7 percent of children with none), 31 percent are more likely to have two or more chronic health conditions (compared to 10.5 percent with none), and 59 percent have no consistent, comprehensive medical care.
But childhood adversity doesn’t have to dictate a child’s future health and success. By appropriately addressing adverse experiences, as well as root causes, children and families can build resiliency.
Under HB 4183, Texas would deploy a strategy coordinated across state agencies, child well-being and faith-based organizations, neighborhood schools, local medical and mental health service providers, criminal and juvenile justice and the philanthropic community.
A blueprint for our communities may include strategies to train and educate professionals to prevent and assess for adverse experiences, then referring for effective services; providing trauma-informed behavioral counseling; providing high-quality early childhood education; making available voluntary programs that strengthen parenting skills; identifying best practices for Child Protective Services; and successfully treating mental illness and substance abuse disorders.
Adverse childhood experiences have staggering economic impacts. Child maltreatment will cost Texas taxpayers an estimated $1.75 billion for CPS in fiscal year 2019, and lifetime costs of 2018 victims — across the education, health care, criminal justice and welfare systems, as well as lost future earnings in the workforce — will add up to more than $58 billion, based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.
Every year Texas waits, those billions accumulate, more lives are damaged, and we ultimately pay a higher price in terms of costs and precious lives.