New Mexico and Arizona tie as the states with the highest rates of children suffering from adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.
The two states have an ACE rate of 18 percent — higher than the national average of 11 percent — according to a just released report from Child Trends based on data from the National Survey of Children’s Health.
ACEs are traumatic childhood events that include abuse and neglect, living with someone who has an untreated mental illness, the death of a parent, and living in extreme economic insecurity.
“When children experience more than one of these traumatic events they can end up suffering from toxic stress, which releases hormones into the brain that actually disrupt healthy brain development, according to scientific research,” said Sharon Kayne, spokeswoman for New Mexico Voices for Children.
Over the last 15 years, she said, researchers have come to understand more about brain development, especially in young children.
“We now know that children who experience multiple ACEs can end up with lifelong physical and mental health consequences. They are less likely to do as well in school because they just can’t concentrate. Maybe they don’t sleep as well because the family is homeless or living in a car or they are chronically hungry,” Kayne said.
The best solution to adverse childhood experience is prevention, said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children.
“Prevention is generally more effective and less expensive than remediation, and prevents all number of public health and safety problems down the line,” he said in a statement.
And prevention can be greatly aided by expansion of state-supported voluntary home visiting programs, he said, encouraging state legislators to fund that expansion by approving an additional 1 percent allocation from the state’s multibillion-dollar Land Grant Permanent Fund.
“Some lawmakers say they want to save the permanent fund for the future, but if today’s babies aren’t the future of this state, what is?” Jimenez said.
A proposal to get that additional 1 percent from the state’s largest permanent fund, House Joint Resolution 1, passed the House on a 36-33 vote last week. It is currently under consideration by the Senate, which has opposed similar legislation in the past. If it does make it through, the legislation could generate $150 million a year for early childhood programs, including home visiting programs.
Home visiting programs generally involve having a trained health worker visit homes to teach parents about child development stages and how to handle typical parenting frustrations, Kayne said.
In addition, the health worker can help screen parents for things like postpartum depression, child abuse, the risk of domestic violence and extreme food insecurity, and then help the families find resources and programs to deal with these situations.
Child Trends, like New Mexico Voices for Children, is a children’s advocacy organization that is dedicated to improving the lives of children by sharing statistical data, helping to shape public opinion and influencing public policy.