When a child acts out of socially acceptable norms or engages in high-risk behavior, the common question has been “what’s wrong with you?” After all, it can be difficult to understand why a child is misbehaving or acting self-destructively. However, the question should be asked is “what happened to you?”
It is a normal and healthy part of childhood development to experience challenges and stress. However, when a child experiences intense, frequent, or prolonged adversity without adequate adult support — such as child maltreatment or living with a caregiver experiencing substance abuse, mental illness or violence — these adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can disrupt development in ways that persist in their bodies for decades.
In Texas, almost 20 percent of children across every socio-economic background have experienced two or more ACEs before their 18th birthday. That’s 1.4 million children in our state alone at risk. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this, causing even more stress for children and families. The overall impact is largely still unknown leaving the outcome to a serious multisystemic public health issue to chance if we fail to act.
Research has revealed that ACEs lead to long-term damaging effects on early brain development, learning, behavior and physical health across the lifespan. These events can disrupt neurodevelopment and increase the likelihood of negative health, behavioral, educational, and economic outcomes. Fortunately, knowledge and expertise has advanced research-backed prevention strategies that reduce the prevalence and impact of ACEs. Successful intervention increases a child’s opportunity for cognitive and emotional development, health, productivity, and economic well-being.
Childhood trauma also impacts the broader society. In 2020, child maltreatment and neglect alone cost Texas an estimated $1.75 billion in CPS expenditures, not including the additional cost associated with substance use and mental health treatment, incarceration, and domestic violence. Nationwide, child maltreatment is estimated to cost $428 billion annually. Yet the economic costs fail to compare to the loss of life.
It is critical to the future of Texas and our children that we get things right from the start by preventing ACEs in their formative years. If we don’t invest on the front end of life, we will pay a far greater cost in terms of revenue, time, resources, and most tragically, precious human lives. As a state, if we are going to successfully address the larger mental and physical health issues that plague our society, we must be willing to expose the root and recognize that when left unaddressed, ACEs will far too often change the trajectory of an otherwise bright future. With prudent policy making, we can begin proactively addressing these challenges and improve the outcomes for our children not just in their early years, but for a lifetime.
That’s why we have partnered to pass House Bill 3493 in the Texas Legislature. This critical policy will improve the delivery of prevention and early intervention services (PEI) to better understand the prevalence and impact of ACEs through a community-based approach. It also empowers systems and communities to better prevent and mitigate the effects of early adversities and implement best practices to build resilience in children and families. In addition to refining and identifying existing services through the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, HB 3493 also builds community strategies with partners across the prevention continuum to address the causes and consequences of ACEs. By doing so, we can improve community partners’ abilities to distinguish situations in which a child and family can receive critical supports through a more efficient community-based program.
At present, Texas currently lacks a strategic, cross-agency and coordinated approach to preventing and mitigating the effects of childhood adversity. As a result, state investments may be ineffective, inefficient and fail to address the root causes in a transformational way. This can be changed. If passed, HB 3493 will empower communities to better leverage existing resources, partnerships, and strategies toward ensuring that every child can start with a strong foundation. Preventive solutions lift-up families in crisis by building resiliency and ensuring that each child has a supportive, healthy relationship on which they can depend. The science is clear, and now that we know better, we have the opportunity to do better!
(You can follow the progress of HB 3493 or any other bill pending before your state legislature by going to house.texas.gov/research)
Tan Parker is state representative in House District 63, and Sophie Phillips is chief executive officer of the nonprofit TexProtects.