By Lance Chilton
Last week, the New Mexico Department of Health sent medical providers in the state the unwelcome news that New Mexico children suffer more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) than children in any other state in the country, sobering news indeed. DOH recommended screening for ACEs and referring children affected by them to counseling and medical services.
First, a definition and a little history. In 1998, Vincent Felitti and others from San Diego described and counted ACEs and what came afterwards. ACEs include losing a parent due to death, divorce or incarceration, losing a functioning parent due to substance abuse, experiencing abuse themselves or between parents. Not surprisingly, poverty plays a role, both as a cause of ACEs and as a result of them. In fact, Felitti found that children followed up to adulthood who had been subject to adverse childhood experiences suffer far more from emotional disorders, joblessness and homelessness, substance abuse, criminal activity, suicide, and even such medical conditions as diabetes and heart disease, than children who are fortunate enough not to have had ACEs. And the more ACEs, the worse the outcome. Subsequent studies have shown the same thing, time and again.
What can be done about the problem and specifically New Mexico’s high incidence of ACEs? There is no simple or single answer, but a number of approaches have been proven to be helpful. Among them:
- Decreasing child poverty. The Governor’s support for state tax credits and the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and the Medicaid and Child Health Insurance Program have all helped in this regard, lifting some families out of poverty.
- Increasing access to home visiting services for young families. There are numerous programs throughout New Mexico (13 at last count in Bernalillo County) which send out trained visitors to work with parents on how best to do what all parents want: to make their children feel loved and successful. And while becoming a parent may be instinctual, being an effective parent is not at all a matter if instinct.
- Improving the quality of early childhood education and care. Child care workers, regardless of their desire to work with children, often have to find less impactful jobs that pay better than child care.
OK, you say, those measures probably help. But what can I do? Clearly, one thing you can do when you vote – you will vote, won’t you?! – is to vote for Constitutional Amendment 1. This measure, which our Democrat-led Legislature put on the ballot through 2022 legislation, would increase payout by 1.25% from the rapidly growing State Land Grant Permanent Fund, largely (60%) for early childhood programs such as childcare and home visiting. The rest of the enlarged distribution would go to public schools for enhancing instruction for at-risk students, extending the school year and improving compensation for teachers.
Opponents will say that we need to save the Permanent Fund for a rainy day. And that we should not “just be throwing money at” the ACEs problem. We should respond that, first, “the Rainy Day” is here now. Second, that money is needed to recruit and retain excellent home visitors and child care workers. And finally, even putting aside the “soft” reasons for giving better care to our children, studies have shown that money spent on early childhood programs more than pays for itself by reducing later outlays for all the bad effects that are brought about by ACEs, such as increased incarceration, increased substance abuse, and increased mental health disorders.
As the dire statistics from DOH show, New Mexico children very much at risk from adverse childhood experiences now. Preschool children can’t vote for Constitutional Amendment 1, even if they are all too often the victims of family problems during their formative years. We can and should vote for Constitutional Amendment 1 and should do all we can in every other way to preserve the future by preventing ACEs from happening.