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Las Cruces efforts lead to nation's first child trauma center


LAS CRUCES - Thanks in large part to state Sen. Bill Soules, D-Dona Ana, New Mexico is about to become the first state in the nation with a child trauma institute.

Undeterred when the bill he sponsored to create the institute languished in committee at the end of the 2019 session of the New Mexico Legislature, Soules took $1.1 million in supplemental funds allotted to legislators during the session to create the Anna Age Eight Institute. It will open July 1 at Northern New Mexico College in Española, where NNMC President Richard J. Bailey Jr., Ph.D., is a big supporter, Soules said.

The institute will work across the state to create a statewide database and clearinghouse to help communities deal with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that affect children throughout their lifetimes, Soules said in June 6 interview. Much of the groundwork, he said, has been laid in Las Cruces.

“ACEs, such as abuse, neglect, and witnessing experiences like parental conflict and substance abuse, have been found to have devastating effects on the future health and prosperity of children,” Soules said in a 2018 essay. “Children with six or more ACEs have a life expectancy 20 years less than those with less than three. The national numbers indicate that about a third of children have more than three ACEs. Some have called it the greatest public health concern we currently face,” Soules said.

The institute’s name comes from the book “Anna, Age Eight, The Data-Driven Prevention of Childhood Trauma and Maltreatment,” published in December 2017, and written by Dominic Cappello and Katherine Ortega Courtney, Ph.D., who worked together in the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department’s Assessment and Data Bureau. The book details the life and death of a fictional eight-year-old girl, Anna, based on a real child who 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 during a February 2019 presentation for the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce.

Soules said Capello and Ortega Courtney will be full-time staff when the institute opens in July.

The only way to end the ACEs cycle is to provide support for 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 other vital services, along with family-centered schools, early childhood learning, youth mentorship, parent support and job training and placement,” Cappello said.

"Northern New Mexico College is both honored and humbled to serve as the host institution for the Anna Age Eight Institute,” Bailey said.  For me, this started out as an effort to try and conquer obstacles our college students face, but quickly and fortuitously became a much larger and more far reaching effort, one we are excited about. Adverse Childhood Experiences impact all of our communities, and we look forward to coming together as a statewide team in this important endeavor."

Soules, who is chair of the New Mexico State Senate Education Committee, said he decided to create the institute after he administered the 10-question ACEs survey anonymously to gifted students he teaches in psychology classes at Oñate High School. The results were astounding, Soules said, because so many students had six or more ACEs – “way higher than what I expected or what the national averages indicate,” he said. A couple of the students had nine or even 10 ACEs.

New Mexico State Sen. Bill Soules, D-Doña Ana. New Mexico State Sen. Bill Soules, D-Doña Ana.

“’ACEs are not destiny,’” Soules told his students. “’Knowing your ACE score helps you to manage a different trajectory for your future.’ I couldn’t help thinking, ‘and these are the AP students who are doing well. How many other students are there who are not feeling any success?’”

It’s a powerful story,” said Soules, who has a Ph.D. in education and psychology and is a retired teacher and principal with Las Cruces Public Schools and Hatch Valley Public Schools and a former member of the LCPS board of education.

Much of the groundwork for setting up the institute has taken place in Las Cruces under the leadership of City Councilor Kasandra Gandara, who is Soules’ partner.

“Resilience leaders is an initiative designed to create healthy communities by accessing all resources to create safe and stable childhoods in Doña Ana County,” Gandara said. “It has been a real catalyst in helping to develop the Anna Age Eight Institute. We are excited to be trailblazers in New Mexico as we move to reduce Adverse Childhood Experiences and child maltreatment.”

“What Kasandra is doing here is bringing people together,” Soules said, to deal with the five “surviving” and five “thriving” sectors that prevent ACEs, including housing, food, transportation and health care. That includes a host of providers and caregivers, he said, and also the business community, because a reduction in ACEs will mean fewer employee sick days and less turnover.

The goal is preventing the childhood traumas before they can become ACEs, Soules said. “You don’t wait for the trauma to start. This is the prevention piece the others aren’t doing.”

Soules said he has gotten calls about the institute and about the ACEs work going on in Las Cruces from around the state and across the country. “Las Cruces is getting recognized,” he said.

One call, Soules said, came from Mark Shriver, president of Save the Children Action Network based in Washington, D.C.

After taking the ACEs survey, Soules said the most common question from his Oñate students was, “’Why haven’t we done anything about this?’ They are right. We need to do something about the trauma our children are experiencing. We can prevent this trauma. We need to change how children are treated and not allow this to continue. ACEs is a public health crisis that is preventable.”

For more information, visit annaageeight.org and risktoresilience.org/author/dcappello. You can download “Anna, Age Eight” for free.

Mike Cook can be reached at mike@lascrucesbulletin.com.



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