AG’s public safety summit focuses on early childhood trauma

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New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez said during a summit on public safety last week that most violence and public safety issues have their origins in early childhood trauma. 

Torrez hosted the all-morning summit with leaders in mental health, child advocacy and criminal justice in Bernalillo County on Friday. He said he wants the summit to lead to a list of recommendations to provide the legislature and the governor’s office to consider as a framework for a broad public safety package before the start of the 2024 legislative session. 

Torrez said some of the ideas he heard during the summit included the establishment of support centers for families in every county; partnerships built with schools to help families in crisis and the importance of finding ways to alleviate administrative burdens for organizations that contract with state government.

“The real thrust is for people to stop grasping for the silver bullet. We have to do the hard work of looking at how systems impact one another,” he said.

Dr. Larissa Lindsey, executive director of University of New Mexico Behavioral Health Clinical Services, spoke during the first panel of the morning about the brain science behind adverse childhood events.

“We all have an alarm system in our brain. It’s what keeps us alive,” she said. 

Lindsey said that that alarm system can be “hijacked” by adverse childhood experiences, which leaves an imprint on the brain when it happens early in life. That imprint can be easily triggered, she said. 

This, plus other factors such as access to education, can impact a person’s ability to regulate their emotions and make logical decisions. That can lead to a person engaging in high-risk behavior. 

If a person’s brain is in a constant alarm state, that can be really uncomfortable and can lead to substance abuse issues, she said. 

“That increases the likelihood that one can’t tell what is safe and what is dangerous. Then you have more trauma,” she said. 

Overall, the pattern can lead to social problems, health problems and a shortened life span, Lindsey said. 

New Mexico ranks high in the nation for the average number of adverse childhood events and the state ranks last for child well-being in the annual Annie E. Casey Foundation report.

Related: Report: New Mexico improving, but still ranks at bottom for child well being

Dominic Cappello, the co-director of the Anna, Age Eight Institute and co-developer of the 100% New Mexico initiative, said that the social determinants of health require 10 vital services for surviving and thriving. Those 10 are medical and dental care; behavioral healthcare; food security; transportation; parent supports; early childhood learning; community schools; youth mentoring and job training.

Dr. Chloe Stoffel, an assistant professor in general pediatrics at the University of New Mexico, said that to address problems with children, the problems of the entire family need to be addressed. 

She said that stress within a family can manifest in a child in very concrete ways. A preschooler experiencing stress at home might not be able to sit still in the classroom and can’t pay attention. That child, causing classroom disruption, is then punished. 

“They may ditch school and believe they don’t belong there. That puts them on a pathway to incarceration as a juvenile, which is a much higher risk for incarceration as an adult. Trauma can affect the executive function in the brain,” Stoffel said. 

Willymae Smith, program manager for a reentry program at the Lincoln County Detention Center, spoke of the services the reentry program offers, such as GED classes and a certificate in a trade through a partnership with Eastern New Mexico University, plus classes in anger management and coping skills and mindfulness. The reentry program also offers referrals for outpatient treatment assessments and detox centers, she said. 

“We get detainees that have a lot of trauma and don’t know what to do with it,” she said. 

Torrez said another challenge is what he called the “delivery gap.”

“How do we ensure that qualified professionals are knocking on the right doors before they have to call the police? That delivery gap is something I’ve struggled with trying to understand. How to solve that problem of who are not showing up [for services],” he said.

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