Like many nations across the globe, the U.S. continues to combat the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic. The Trump administration’s deficient response has elevated the emotional, physical, and economic harm suffered by families in America. As we move through this moment of collective trauma, we must adopt focused, evidence-based approaches to make our country whole again and ensure that these approaches prioritize a precious responsibility — our children’s future.
Structural inequities that existed long before the pandemic emerged have caused disproportionate harm to vulnerable Americans, from families of color and frontline workers to teachers and their students. These longstanding inequities led the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, under the leadership of its late chairman, Elijah Cummings, to convene hearings on childhood trauma in 2019. These first-ever congressional hearings focused exclusively on this important topic demonstrated that to end generations of trauma, we must acknowledge and treat childhood trauma as the public health crisis it is.
According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than two-thirds of children experience at least one seriously traumatic event by age 16. These range from experiencing psychological, physical, or sexual abuse to witnessing domestic violence, losing a loved one to violence, or experiencing neglect. The American Psychological Association states that the lasting consequences of trauma can vary from unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, and strained relationships to physical symptoms such as headaches and nausea. A study by the Center for American Progress reported that even as young as infancy, children of color are twice as likely to experience adverse childhood events as white children.
Childhood and adolescent exposure to adversity such as poverty, homelessness, and witnessing violence can lead to complex trauma and toxic stress, which affect brain development. These traumas have damaged children and families for generations and have been linked to several leading causes of death in America, including heart disease, lung disease, substance use, and suicide.
During last summer’s landmark hearings, Dr. Debra Houry, director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified that, “due to the tremendous impact that childhood trauma has on the future health and opportunity of our nation’s children, the work towards prevention requires collaboration across all sectors and the federal government.” We wholeheartedly agree, which is why we have introduced a pair of bills to do that.
The Services and Trauma-informed Research of Outcomes in Neighborhood Grants for Support for Children Act of 2020, also known as the STRONG Support for Children Act, would create two new grant programs within the Department of Health and Human Services to fund reparative, culturally sensitive, trauma-informed, and community-based programs for treating and healing childhood trauma while mitigating the role that centuries of structural racism, bigotry, and discrimination have played in traumatizing children for generations. Under this bill, for example, a local public health department that identifies homelessness or gun violence as the primary contributors to trauma in their community could apply for federal funding to hire more social workers and train its staff in trauma-informed care. The department could also allocate this funding to community-based organizations that provide housing and address gun violence through after school programming.
The Children’s Protection Act of 2020 would ensure that the federal government is proactive and transparent in its efforts to end childhood trauma and prioritize the health and well-being of children by requiring agencies to analyze and publicly disclose the impact of all proposed federal regulations on children.
The Trump administration has consistently demonstrated a reckless disregard for the impact its policies have on children. From cruel immigration practices and social safety net rollbacks to disastrous regulations that threaten food security, a clean environment, climate stability, and civil rights, these damaging changes have far-reaching and dangerous implications for the next generation’s health and prosperity.
To make matters worse, the coronavirus crisis forced children to transition from going to school to remote learning, losing access to teachers and classmates, school meals, outdoor play, and support staff. Many young people have needed to take on new caregiving roles in their families, while others are supporting their families as frontline workers at grocery stores, markets, and restaurants.
Responsive, trauma-informed policies are long overdue. We must support children during this crisis as we all fight to overcome the lasting effects of the pandemic. The anticipated long-term mental health impacts on children demand that we be intentional about addressing childhood trauma in all forms.
Our system must prioritize preventing traumatic harms so that every child grows up feeling safe and supported. Together, these historic bills represent a holistic approach to addressing childhood trauma that meets the growing needs in our communities. They depart from a status quo that entrenches cycles of trauma by responding with punishment, criminalization, and surveillance, and instead center trauma-responsive policies that emphasize healing.
As we look to build a more resilient and equitable nation, there is no more important place to start than ensuring that our children and families have the resources and safeguards they need to address trauma at its roots.
Ayanna Pressley represents Massachusetts’s 7th congressional district in the House of Representatives. Carolyn B. Maloney represents New York’s 12th congressional district in the House and chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.