A baby that wouldn’t smile or interact with others. Two-year-old children cursing and throwing things. The suicide of a 9 year old.
Those were some of the stories the Georgia House Study Committee on Infant and Toddler Social and Emotional Health heard during their first meeting on Sep. 12.
The study committee is looking into the mental health of children ages three years and younger and its effects on their future. Those who testified said the issue needs to be addressed now rather than later. The committee is led by Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, and includes Rep. Mart Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, Rep. Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers, Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock and Rep. Robert Dickey, a Republican from Musella. Dickerson did not attend the hearing due to a previous commitment.
“Incredibly we are seeing children as young as four of five in ERs with self-harming behaviors,” said Erica Fener Sitkoff, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children. “The idea that we’re here today to focus on starting early in promoting positive social and emotional development is more critical now than ever before.”
Michelle Hill shared stories of young children cursing and throwing things at adults.
It takes a village to raise a child, she said and “our village is sick.”
“We are sick from mass incarceration, drugs, domestic violence, single mothers, absent fathers, too much screen time, not enough exercise, and all of the stress and trauma that goes with generational poverty,” Hill said.
A child could have future problems if their issues are not addressed during the critical first three years of life, the group said.
“Because the way the brain gets wired depends on one’s experiences,” Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker said. “When you are in a safe environment, a nurturing environment, a stimulating environment, your brain grows in a way that enhances your capacity. But when your body is focused on whether you have enough to eat, whether you are safe, whether you are stressed, the brain doesn’t grow because of the stress the body has experienced. It changes the cognitive outcomes for that child potentially for life.”
Georgia Voices for Children, a nonprofit child policy and advocacy organization, presented four recommendations to the committee that included:
• Collecting data on the mental health workforce and licensure process as is done for physicians.
• Improving the Babies Can’t Wait Program, evaluate its provider network and look into issues with reimbursement. The program serves children from infancy to 3 years old.
• Adopting mental health diagnostic codes for young children.
• Extending Medicaid coverage for new mothers from 60 days to a year so that mothers experiencing postpartum depression and physical health issues can afford treatment.
The committee is expected to meet again before disbanding on Nov. 30. The committee is expected to file a report that could contain legislative recommendations for the 2020 session.