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“How many kids are hungry tonight?” state Sen. Bill Soules, D-Doña Ana, asked the audience Wednesday night, Oct. 13, at the state Legislative Education Study Committee’s (LESC) dinner at Hotel Encanto in Las Cruces. “How many kids have no place to sleep tonight?”
Because zero is not the answer to those questions, “We’ve still got work to do,” said Soules, chair of LESC and the New Mexico Senate Education Committee.
The dinner was part of the LESC’s two-day visit to Doña Ana County, which also included the LESC’s October committee meeting and visits to Centennial High School, Tombaugh Elementary School, the New Mexico State University engineering complex and Hatch Valley High School.
Dinner speakers also included Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, former Gov. Susana Martinez, New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary Kurt Steinhaus and Katherine Ortega Courtney, Ph.D., co-director of the Anna Age Eight Institute (AAEI) at NMSU.
The focus of the dinner was Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and their impact on “students’ health, wellbeing and educational success,” LESC said.
AAEI, which re-located to Las Cruces from Española in 2020, is focused on ACES prevention.
ACES is “an incredibly important topic,” Steinhaus said. “We’re talking about childhood abuse and neglect.”
Steinhaus remembered talking to the parents of a student who had committed suicide, and the student’s mother telling him, “Don’t let this happen to a single other family in this country.”
The child welfare system in the United States was set up to help traumatized children, Ortega Courtney said, but ACES, she said, are focused on 10 experiences children have in the home, including physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; domestic violence and adults in the home who are dealing with substance-abuse addiction and mental health challenges or who are incarcerated.
“Trauma begets trauma,” said Ortega Courtney, who said she was bullied in elementary school in Española, New Mexico. The bullying created anxiety which she continued to suffer from through high school, Ortega Courtney said.
“I was facing a bear every single day,” she said. “It was incredibly unhealthy.”
AAEI focuses on 10 vital services essential for surviving and thriving, she said. They include education, medical and behavioral health services, food, transportation and housing.
“Healthy communities make healthy kids,” said Soules, who has been AAEI’s strongest advocate in the New Mexico Legislature.
“We can make huge impacts in our state,” Ortega Courtney said. “All it takes is everyone.”
The LESC visit included staff from LESC and officials from the Hunt Institute, a nonprofit based in North Carolina focused on improving education.
The dinner also included New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colon, Las Cruces Public Schools Superintendent Ralph Ramos and Doña Ana County Manager Fernando Macias.
AAEI is active in 17 of New Mexico’s 33 counties she said.
AAEI “was funded by the New Mexico state legislature in 2019 to reach the goal of ensuring that our children, students and families are trauma-free and empowered to succeed in family life, school and the workplace,” according to https://annaageeight.nmsu.edu/.
AAEI takes its name from “Anna, Age Eight, The Data-Driven Prevention of Childhood Trauma and Maltreatment,” the 2017 book that Ortega Courtney and AAEI Co-Director Dominic Cappello co-authored. The book details the life and death of a fictional 8-year-old girl who is based on a real child Cappello and Courtney knew about while working for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. The girl was passed back and forth eight times between her mother’s custody and state care before being kicked to death by her mother.