Mai Le, an ACEs champion and program associate with First 5 San Mateo, wasted no time getting to the point of why she was asking lawmakers to support legislation that would help prevent adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
“When I was a child, my father had a psychotic break and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia,” she said in a conversation with Eric Dietz, a staff member for State Senator John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa).
“I’m a high achiever, work in community health and public health,” she continued. “And I had mental health problems myself,” she said. That there were no supports at the time, explains Le, was “a missed opportunity.”
Le was among 71 people participating in a policy education day in Sacramento organized by the California Campaign to Counter Childhood Adversity (4CA), a statewide coalition of more than 100 organizations. Its mission was to educate lawmakers about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the 17 relevant billsthat address preventing and mitigating ACEs and childhood trauma. Participants walked up and down the halls of legislative offices paying visits to more than 70 lawmakers’ offices, according to Afomeia Tesfal, a policy and advocacy manager with the Center for Youth Wellness, one of the organizers of the event.
But before 4CA groups headed to lawmakers’ offices, they heard from Kris Perry, the deputy secretary for early childhood development of the California Health and Human Services Agency and senior advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom on implementation of early childhood development initiatives.
Perry told the group that her professional interest in early childhood stemmed from work she did as a child abuse prevention social worker in Alameda County some 25 years ago.
But her interest in the work is also personal. “I grew up in Kern County and I felt really invisible,” said Perry, a lesbian, whose name first rose to prominence in 2009 as a named plaintiff in a successful lawsuit challenging the ban against same sex marriages in the State of California. In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the ban, which had been approved by California voters in 2008.
Perry said that when she looks back at her own career and work, she does so with an understanding of how families struggled with experiences beyond their control: “For the most part [they] had all good intentions and were suffering through the weight of poverty and they couldn’t make all the good things happen for their kids that they knew needed to happen. This in some ways continues, but we know so much more about the long-term, lifelong impact on mental and physical health that those experiences have.”
And, explained Perry, we have solid ways of changing those outcomes. She listed a number of ways that Governor Newsom has made preventing and mitigating ACEs a top priority: His appointment of pediatrician and founder of the Center for Youth Wellness, ACEs trailblazer Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, as the state’s first surgeon general; the appointment of pediatrician and public health expert Mark Ghali to head the California Health and Human Services Agency; designating $45 million towards screening the children in the state’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal, for adverse childhood experiences; and proposing paid family leave for parents of newborns for up to six months.
While encouraging, Perry also warned: “We’re a little bit at risk of taking too much for granted because we have such a champion in the governor, and we have so many of you who are ready to do more work. But the reality is his budget isn’t over the finish line.”
And a robust budget focused on prevention of ACEs is key, she said. “We have to make big budget decisions to show families across the state that we don’t want them to end up in a situation where if they are getting trauma screening they’ll get an ACE score of 2 or more. We would really like to prevent that from ever happening.”
Back in Senator John Moorlach’s office, Mai Le drew attention to AB8, introduced in December 2018, that would require California schools to have mental health professionals available to students in light of a statement in the bill that says “57 percent of California children have experienced trauma.”
Le says that in her own case there were mental health professionals at her school, but she wasn’t able to access them. That’s because “of stigma and that I was high-achieving and nobody was talking about our life outside school,” said Le, who is co-leading a county wide ACEs initiative in San Mateo County.
Other bills related to preventing ACEs now making their way through the state legislature include:
- AB 741, which will require that the Department of Health Care Services provide training to the state’s health care providers and their staff in screening children for adverse childhood experiences and how to provide support and referrals for families who need it.
- AB1005would require the Department of Social Services to establish a crisis hotline for both foster youth and foster caregivers.
- AB656would create an Office of Healthy and Safe Communities under the auspices of the California Surgeon General, and would require the Surgeon General to develop a violence prevention plan. (Here is a list of other pertinent billsto prevent and mitigate ACEs.)
Wanda Davis, an early intervention program officer at First 5 Contra Costa, said she and her group of 4CA participants emphasized in their visits why AB 741 was an important bill to support so that providers and their staff can help build on a families’ strengths. “We talked about the importance of ACEs as a way for people to understand the impact that trauma and toxic stress can have, but there’s also the need for families to know how they can support their children,” she said.
About 15 groups of 4CA participants visited the offices of five lawmakers each, a total of 75 lawmaker visits. The question is how did lawmakers respond to requests by participants to support ACEs prevention legislation? CYW’s Afomeia Tesfai, who participated in the 4CA policy days the two preceding years, said she noticed a difference: “What we noticed is there’s been a huge desire and understanding of issues and policy makers are much more receptive to know how to broaden their understanding and how to take action.”
When asked if he knew about adverse childhood experiences and trauma, Harrison Bowlby, a legislative assistant to Assemblymember Autumn R. Burke (D-Inglewood), said, “We’re all over trauma!” Burke is the co-author of SB 298,Poverty reduction, also known as the End Child Poverty Act.
Lori Turk-Bicakci, senior manager of the Data and Research Programs and Partnerships at the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, agreed that lawmakers she visited were more receptive than the ones she was assigned to visit two years ago.
“The first year we went, at least one of the conversations was challenging,” she recalled. She remembered a staffer saying: “‘This is a parent’s problem. Why should we be doing something about this?’
“But this time around all five offices seemed much more engaged,” she said. On a few occasions, staffers were unfamiliar with adverse childhood experiences, but once that was explained, she said, “There was recognition: ‘Yes, I understand that, I’m on board with that.’”
Le, too, agrees that staffers responded positively: “I felt like everyone was receptive to hearing about childhood adversity and what we could do to change it. And I do feel it’s truly bipartisan because we met with people on both sides of the aisle.”