BY MIKE COOK
Las Cruces Bulletin
LAS CRUCES – When New Mexico State Senator and retired educator Bill Soules asked the 60 Advanced Placement (AP) students in the psychology class he teaches at Oñate High School to take the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey, one-third of them scored a six or higher.
“These are AP students, students who are doing well,” Soules said. Students who are not performing as well academically likely will have even higher ACE scores, he said.
The ACE survey includes 10 experiences that can severely impact a child for the rest of his or her life, like physical and sexual abuse and neglect, and living in an environment of parental conflict, substance abuse and violence.
A score of three or higher has been found to “have devastating effects on the future health and prosperity of children,” said Soules, a Las Cruces Democrat who has a Ph.D. in education and psychology and is chair of the New Mexico Senate Education Committee. Those long-term effects include serious health and behavioral health problems, substance abuse, learning difficulties and the inability to hold a job and have a successful career and significantly shorter lifespans.
Kaiser Permanente HMO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted an ACEs study in the mid-1990s that “uncovered a stunning link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop as adults, as well as social and emotional problems,” according to mentalhealthcoalitionvv.org. “This includes heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, violence, being a victim of violence and suicide.”
Author and former New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) official Dominic Cappello told the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce’s Feb. 21 quarterly lunch that he has spent the past year talking about the impact of ACEs on children, families and the state’s economy during 100 presentations across New Mexico.
His book, “Anna, Age Eight, The Data-Driven Prevention of Childhood Trauma and Mistreatment,” details the life and death of a fictional eight-year-old girl. Anna is based on a real child Cappello knew of while working in CYFD’s Assessment and Data Bureau with the book’s co-author, Katherine Ortega Courtney, Ph.D. The real child was passed back and forth eight times between her mother’s custody and state care before being kicked to death by her mother, Cappello said.
He and Ortega Courtney wrote the book “to create a blueprint to stop this from happening,” Cappello said. “I have to take responsibility for ‘Anna.’ I can’t just be pointing fingers at other people anymore.”
The state system that deals with childhood trauma “is so challenged,” Cappello told chamber members and guests at the lunch and “really needs your support.” Staff, relying on inadequate data and burdened by huge caseloads, are “paid to deal with the aftermath” of child abuse,” he said. CYFD can substantiate that one in eight children in New Mexico is maltreated by age 18, he said, but that is “the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got a serious problem here.”
“Childhood trauma is the root cause of almost every major challenge New Mexico faces: from the opioid crisis and violence, to low school achievement and underemployment,” according to www.annaageeight.org/institute.
A bill sponsored by Soules in the 2019 legislative session would create the Anna, Age Eight Institute at Northern New Mexico College (NNMC) in Española. It received a do-pass recommendation from the Senate Public Affairs Committee after a Feb. 25 hearing and moved on to the Senate Finance Committee. NNMC is “the right place to put this to serve all the people of New Mexico,” Soules said.
He said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and her administration support the bill, which would create a statewide database and clearinghouse to help communities deal with ACEs.
ACEs constitute “a public health crisis,” Soules said. “I think it’s a core of a whole lot of issues that children come with when they come to school.” ACEs, he said, are “completely preventable. Our kids can’t wait for us as adults to start protecting them as children.”
That work is already underway in Las Cruces, where City Councilor Kasandra Gandara has set up the state’s first data-driven program focused on ACEs prevention, Cappello said.
With support from others, Gandara has completed five tasks in the past year, including creating “the nation’s first data-driven and cross-sector program focused on ending adverse childhood experiences,” Gandara said in a March 1 Bulletin guest column. She also has formed 10 task forces that meet monthly in Las Cruces to identify gaps in ACEs services, and has reached out to business and nonprofit leaders and the community to more effectively meet the ACEs challenge, which he said is “spread across all socio-economic levels.”
The last statewide ACEs-related survey, done in 2009, showed one third of New Mexico adults have three or more ACEs, Cappello said. One-third to two-thirds of New Mexico students have three or more ACEs, he said, and a huge majority don’t graduate from high school because of their untreated trauma.
“What we have is essentially an epidemic of ACEs that no one is talking about,” said Cappello, who said his personal score on the ACEs survey was a five. With support from friends, mentors and counselors, Cappello said, he has “worked very hard to overcome a lot of trauma.”
The only way to end the cycle, Cappello said, is to provide support to both parents and children with “vital family services” that include behavioral health care, medical and dental care, safe and stable housing, food programs and pantries and transportation and vital services, along with family-centered schools, early childhood learning, youth mentorship, parent support and job training and placement.
“ACEs prevention requires systematic change,” Cappello said. “Innovators and entrepreneurs” are needed to ‘Uber-ize’ the system, he said, creating apps and websites that bring services to those who need them. “Everyone’s a driver; everyone’s a passenger,” Cappello said. “We will end ACEs when we get these 10 sectors working.”
For more information, visit www.annaageeight.org/institute and www.risktoresilience.org/author/dcappello. You can download “Anna, Age Eight” for free.
Mike Cook may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey
Prior to your 18th birthday:
1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? Or ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? Or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
3. Did an adult or person at least five years older than you ever touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? Or attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
4. Did you often or very often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special, or that your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
5. Did you often or very often feel that you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? Or your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
6. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic? Or who used street drugs?
7. Was your parent or stepparent often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or hit by a thrown object? Or sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
8. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?
9. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
10. Did a household member go to prison?
Add up your “yes” answers to get your ACE score.