NASHVILLE — The Senate Health and Welfare Committee tackled the problem of preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) during their recent fall meeting in Nashville, calling for more coordination to ensure at-risk children are being served. Lawmakers on the committee heard from the state’s foremost experts representing various departments and agencies of state government and the Tennessee Academy of Pediatrics regarding actions being taken to prevent ACEs and its wide-ranging impact on Tennesseans.
ACEs are stressful or traumatic experiences that range from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to parental divorce or the incarceration of a parent or guardian. Decades of research has shown these experiences increase the risk for many negative health and well-being outcomes later in life, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, obesity, suicide, violent behavior, cancers and early death. Studies also show a link between such childhood trauma and offenders entering the criminal justice system.
“Many of the problems we are trying to solve with our adult populations could be solved earlier if we can get to them when they are young enough to make a difference,” said Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City). “We want to ensure that Tennessee is doing everything we can with our resources to prevent such experiences from occurring at the earliest age possible.”
Approximately 34.8 million children in the U.S. are impacted by ACEs, with Tennessee having a significantly higher rate than other states. A 2016 study showed 61% of Tennesseans had at least one adverse childhood experience, while 27% had three or more. Research shows a $7 return for each $1 spent on programs targeting the earliest years of development.
“If we can break the cycle, that needs to be done early,” added Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), who successfully passed legislation this year to enhance the state’s ACEs prevention efforts. “We wanted to try to facilitate some discussion concerning how different agencies could work across sectors in an effective partnership to attack this problem from a holistic perspective, rather than in isolation. The bottom line is how many lives we can change and how many we can save.”
Early detection and prompt intervention is key to preventing ACEs. The state’s Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program supports evidenced-based home visiting services to at-risk pregnant women and parents with young children. The voluntary program, which provided 19,961 home visits to 3,235 parents and children in 1,656 families in 2016, individually-tailors support services to prevent traumatic experiences as early as possible. The state leverages federal funds to implement such high-performing models as the Health Families America, Nurse-Family Partnership, Parents as Teachers and Nurses for Newborns, which provide a wide range of services to Tennesseans in need.
The state also has the Help Us Grow Successfully (HUGS) Program which is a targeted home-based case management program coordinated by local health department staffs through TennCare. In addition, the Department of Education’s Building Strong Brains: Strategies for Educators is a free training program offered to empower school leaders and teachers to address chronic childhood trauma in the school and classroom.
“This was a very important meeting,” added Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), who has also spearheaded legislative efforts to prevent ACEs. Overbey is a member of the Juvenile Justice Task Force, which is also studying preventative measures that can be incorporated into the criminal justice system utilizing ACEs studies. “The takeaway from this meeting is that the legislature is very much interested in what we are doing to serve the children and youth of our state, especially in making sure we get services to those who have unfortunately had adverse childhood experiences. Let’s lower the walls of the silo so we communicate and talk with each other to the benefit of all the people of the state,” he concluded.