Stress comes with ordinary life, and it can be an effective teacher in developing coping skills and instilling resilience. Then, there is the toxic variety of stress, afflicting those living in severe poverty, involving trauma stemming from abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. The experience can leave a lasting mark on children in the form of physical and mental ailments long into adulthood, even reducing life expectancy.
On Monday, the Center for Community Solutions released an assessment of recent research on toxic stress. The Cleveland-based think tank did so with good timing. Mike DeWine, the governor-elect, put at the front of his campaign a commitment to addressing the needs of at-risk children. He talked about no less than investing to see that they have a realistic and fair shot at the opportunities available to children who grow up with more advantages.
That will require, among other things, educating state lawmakers about the burden of severe poverty and the value of intervening early in an attempt to offset the harm. Which is how the Center for Community Solutions report makes a productive contribution.
The report reminds that the science shows 90 percent of brain development takes place before age 5. Thus, it matters greatly when young children repeatedly face what are called “Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, from physical abuse to hunger, a parent in prison to the absence of a stable place to live. The report explains how such stress affects social and cognitive growth, impairing the capacity to cope and even to form relationships.
The toxic stress starts in pregnancy. The report points to studies showing a correlation between a mother’s adverse experiences while pregnant and her unborn child’s development. Mothers with high levels of traumatic episodes deliver babies earlier and with lower birth weights, an infant’s development already set back. The report notes research finding that communities with higher rates of ACEs have higher numbers of school suspensions.
It hardly requires unique math skills to see the devastating trajectory, the neglect, abuse and dysfunction generating higher social costs as the years pass, in an increased prison population and the expense of chronic illnesses or other matters of poor health.
The Center for Community Solutions report follows the release of three related studies just before Christmas. Voices for Ohio’s Children issued “The First 1,000 Days,” highlighting “the critical time in a child’s life” and policies such as protecting the Medicaid expansion, avoiding an abrupt end to benefits because of a slight increase in income and making available adequate mental health services for children.
In its study, the Public Children Services Association of Ohio emphasized the dramatic increase in the number of children now in the children services system due to neglect and abuse. The primary driver is the opiate, or addiction, crisis. Finally, the Children’s Defense Fund Ohio looked at the problem of underemployment in households and its effect on children, arguing for “two generational” strategies to put parents and children in a better position to succeed.
All of this is part of rallying to the cause, including the compelling trove of data presented by Groundwork Ohio last year. The message goes: Follow the science, and act early to improve the lives of children at risk, or living in the toxic stress of severe poverty. Mike DeWine has made such efforts a leading priority. The task now is ensuring that the first state budget of his tenure as governor includes the necessary commitment.