By: Mary-Russell Roberson
June 1, 2023
A 2023 Preventing Child Trauma Summit Series Article
Evidence-based strategies to prevent child trauma or mitigate its effects can be translated into policy change. Doing so increases the likelihood that the strategy can be scaled up and sustained over time, thereby benefitting a larger number of families and communities. Policies can be enacted in legislation or in agencies at the state and local level, as well as in workplaces, schools, and healthcare settings.
For example, one strategy that’s been shown to reduce child trauma is to support families economically, which can be implemented through policies that provide childcare and housing subsidies, higher minimum wage and child tax credits, expanded SNAP (food stamp) benefits, and paid parental leave.
“These policies focused on finances and economic wellbeing can make a huge difference,” said Sharon Hirsch, president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina. “Study after study shows when we reduce the overload of economic stress [on parents], childhood neglect and abuse are reduced.”
“These policies focused on finances and economic wellbeing can make a huge difference. Study after study shows when we reduce the overload of economic stress [on parents], childhood neglect and abuse are reduced.” ~ Sharon Hirsch, president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina
Other policies that could help reduce or mitigate child trauma include those aimed at expanding access to mental health assessment and treatment for children, improving healthcare for moms and babies, and providing universal high-quality early childhood education.
Given the importance of policy change, a recent two-day statewide summit, “Leveraging North Carolina’s Assets to Prevent Child Trauma,” included information about how to advocate amidst the presentations on child trauma, its causes and effects, and its prevention.
Many attendees are already experienced at engaging with lawmakers to push for policy reform, and Erica Palmer-Smith, MA, executive director of NC Child, spent a moment celebrating a recent notable accomplishment, “We are going to expand access to Medicaid in 2023. I want to thank you all for the work you did. It worked.”
In March, the North Carolina General Assembly passed, and Governor Roy Cooper signed, a Medicaid expansion bill. Palmer-Smith said studies from other states show that expanding Medicaid leads to many benefits for families and children including a reduction in neglect reports for children under five. The Medicaid expansion also comes with a signing bonus of more than $1 billion, which Cooper and some in the legislature want to use to fund large-scale improvements in access to quality mental health treatment in the state.
For those with less advocacy experience, or for anyone needing a refresher, Whitney Marris, LCSW, director of trauma-informed practice and system transformation at the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy & Practice (CTIPP), walked conference attendees through some of the steps for an effective conversation with a policymaker. To set the stage, she asked attendees to spend a few minutes thinking about what they’d learned at the conference that might inspire them to act. “The difference between dreams and reality is action,” she said. “What are your best hopes for taking what you learned out into the world to translate it into action?”
For those inspired to advocate with policymakers, Marris suggested beginning conversations with elected officials by telling your own story and how that informs your interest in child wellbeing. Next, she suggested trying to find common ground and shared values with the official, to get to, “Here is how we want the same thing.”
After common ground has been established, explain why now is the moment to act. Finally, she suggested framing the story in such a way as to make the official feel like supporting the policy would make them the hero of the story. (For more information about how to advocate for trauma-informed policy, CTIPP produced a nine-part online series.)
The summit also featured two members of the N.C. General Assembly, Senator Jim Burgin (Republican) and Representative Ashton Wheeler Clemmons (Democrat), who joined the summit virtually in a conversation moderated by Jesse Kohler, CEO of CTIPP.
When asked how he preferred to be approached by people interested in advancing trauma-informed policies, Burgin said, “I think personal relationships are the best way to communicate ideas and work together. I like people to come by and see us, to invite us to meetings.”
“I think personal relationships are the best way to communicate ideas and work together. I like people to come by and see us, to invite us to meetings." ~Senator Jim Burgin
He said that he and other politicians are overloaded with printed information from constituents and lobbyists, and suggested that a one-pager with just the highlights is more effective than a folder full of paper.
Clemmons agreed, and added that people interested in advocating for children should target their messages to politicians who are already working in that area. She and Burgin are both interested in issues related to early childhood and children’s mental health, and they both serve on the Joint Legislative Early Childhood Caucus. “Preventing trauma and addressing it when it happens is something that many of us on both sides of the aisle and both chambers care about,” she said. “We are trying to strengthen families and support systems by investing in child care and prenatal support for moms.”
“Preventing trauma and addressing it when it happens is something that many of us on both sides of the aisle and both chambers care about. We are trying to strengthen families and support systems by investing in child care and prenatal support for moms.” ~Representative Ashton Wheeler Clemmons
Burgin said the General Assembly recently passed a bill unanimously that would make adoptions easier, especially open adoptions. He said he and his colleagues are working on ways to increase the number of child psychiatrists in rural areas, put more nurses and psychologists in schools, improve and expand inpatient mental health facilities for children and adolescents, and make improvements to the foster care system. “We’ve got to completely redo the foster care system,” he said. “The average child has been in multiple homes and living environments. This is a recipe for bad outcomes.” To educate himself about the issues he’s working on, Burgin is spending time traveling the state, visiting mental health facilities for young people, meeting with child psychiatrists, and hosting town halls focused on mental health so he can hear from citizens about their experiences and their needs.
Both of the legislators are focused on prevention and on making systemic changes to improve the entire landscape of child health, rather than being in the position of having to continually address crises as they arise.
“I want to make sure that we take care of the urgent things,” said Burgin, “but do the important things to make sure we don’t have more urgent things happening.”
Clemmons agreed. “If we think about our systems, we have to move away from putting out the fires,” she said. “We have to ask how do we build systems that support everyone in a whole different way?”
The UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute's (FPG) FRONTIER program sponsored a statewide summit, “Leveraging North Carolina’s Assets to Prevent Child Trauma,” April 27-28, 2023. Nearly 150 representatives from academia, community and state organizations, lived experience, philanthropy, government agencies, and governing bodies convened in person, and approximately 230 people joined virtually. The summit was organized by Diana “Denni” Fishbein, PhD, director of translational neuro-prevention research at FPG, and Melissa Clepper-Faith, MD, MPH, translational research program and policy coordinator at FPG. This article is one of a series dealing with issues discussed at the summit; find the full series here.