Nadine Burke Harris, California’s Surgeon General, has a lot in common with the vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris—Jamaican heritage, surname, home state—and a commitment to addressing ACEs and toxic stress. As reported in the New Yorker article by Paul Tough, “The Poverty Clinic,” Dr. Harris told Kamala Harris, then San Francisco district attorney, about ACEs in 2008 and in response, she offered to help. District Attorney Harris then introduced her to professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, Victor Carrion, MD. Later, Senator Harris and Carrion became members of the Founder's Circle of Center for Youth Wellness launched in 2012. As the saying goes, they go way back.
Going back even farther to childhood, Senator Harris would be drawn naturally to understanding human behavior through science. She was greatly influenced by her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a PhD from Berkeley in nutrition and endocrinology and a breast cancer researcher. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd says a young Kamala Harris washed test tubes in her scientist mother’s lab.
While California Attorney General, Harris gave important support to Dr. Harris’s founding of the Center for Youth Wellness in 2013 and later highlighted this work during her presidential bid. It is featured along with specific policy proposals related to trauma and trauma-informed approaches in the document titled “Kamala’s Plan to Transform the Criminal Justice System and Re-Envision Public Safety in America:A plan to fundamentally transform our criminal justice system to shift away from mass incarceration and to invest in building safer and healthier communities. The campaign document states:
“Early in her career, Kamala worked with Dr. Nadine Burke Harris – now California’s Surgeon General – to create the Center for Youth Wellness to screen children for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and treat the toxic stress that can have lasting effects on their physical and mental health. As president, she'll invest federal money to incentivize states to follow their lead.” (page 7 of 15).
Throughout the document, Senator Harris’s knowledge of brain science and early childhood experiences as well as commitment to trauma-informed approaches are evident.
In the plan’s Help Children Thrive section, her positions are presented in the context of research that demonstrates that “children’s earliest life experiences - from nourishment and reading to poverty and exposure to violence - have profound effects on their brain development and long-term health and safety.”
Here are a few references to addressing trauma through policy:
—"Make significant federal investments in policies that would end mass incarceration and especially into evidence-based, non-carceral social supports and programs at the state and local level to improve public safety and reduce violence. This includes investing in jobs and job training, housing, transportation, food security, education, medical and mental health care, including trauma recovery.” (p. 2 of 15)
—As president, Kamala would address the broken foster care system and disrupt the pipeline of children from the child welfare system to the criminal justice system. She'll work with leaders like Rep. Karen Bass and the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth (CCFY) to ensure foster youth have the education, healthcare, and other wraparound services they need to heal from trauma and grow into healthy, thriving adults. (p. 5-6).
—"Expand access to mental health services and trauma-informed care.” (p. 11 of 15)
The plan shows an appreciation for the interconnectedness of social problems and the potential for ACEs science to address many of them. A deeper dive into her policy priorities as a US Senator illustrates a commitment to addressing a board range of issues related to ACEs and trauma. She has spoken forcefully on the health and economic impact of COVID on black and brown people and led on federal anti-lynching legislation. With Sen. Booker and the congressional black caucus, she co-wrote the Justice in Policing Act (S. 3912, H.R. 7120) that has passed the House but is stalled in the Senate.
There is ample evidence that this attorney and former proscecutor would work to elevate public health in its most expansive form and that she would advocate for experts in early childhood and the neurobiology of toxic stress to join a Biden-Harris Administration in key positions.