A position funded in the state budget marks a giant step forward for plans to address trauma in the youngest Georgians.
Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, said that — despite major cuts due to the coronavirus-driven economic downturn — there’s a new specialized slot in the Department of Early Care and Learning. It’s the most important recommendation to come out of her Study Committee on Infant and Toddler Social and Emotional Health.
“We were able to keep the DECAL position on early childhood development, so that will move forward July 1,” Dempsey said. “It’s just profound.”
The House study committee spent several months last year looking into how babies’ brains grow and the implications for their adulthood. A host of experts, including Jamie Colvard of the nonprofit Zero to Three, testified that development is exponential during the first three years of life — and stressors at that point can leave scars that affect the child’s future abilities.
Dempsey and her committee members determined that a focus on helping at-risk babies and their families is a more effective way to ensure more Georgians are happy and productive adults. The benefits, according to their final report, are both personal — for the individuals — and financial, for the state.
A big sticking point, however, is a lack of funding to identify and treat young children experiencing trauma at home. State Medicaid policies don’t cover such assessments, which also discourages medical professionals from specializing in the relatively new field.
Dempsey said the person in the DECAL position will start setting the stage for a program in Georgia similar to those underway in states like Alabama.
“The two most important things are to help with the public education — to create an awareness and understanding of that first important year — and to look for grants and other funding to help develop the financial structure,” Dempsey said.
Under the Family First Prevention Services Act, part of the 2018 federal budget, states are supposed to shift their child welfare focus to preventative measures. Money has been available mainly for foster care, but now financing is being directed to more innovative programs.
Melissa Carter of the Barton Child Policy Center at the Emory University School of Law told the committee in December that it opens the door for a range of options. Applications are being accepted for strategies aimed at keeping kids connected to their family, school, community and peers.
The “First Five Alabama” program started with a grant that paid for a lead position, something like the DECAL slot funded in Georgia’s new budget.
Its coordinator, Dallas Rabig, explained to the committee how she worked with the University of Alabama to create a model for early intervention.
A partnership of state agencies and nonprofits, the program started in 2015 has been able to build on its successes to leverage a reliable funding stream, Rabig said.