RICHMOND, Va. — A major focus during the General Assembly session this year was how mental health services intersect with issues like school safety and foster care. A number of initiatives included “trauma-informed” care and practices, which help adults figure out what might be happening at home to cause a kid to act out. 

This was the focus of the Voices for Virginia’s Children Summit on Childhood Trauma and Resilience on Thursday in Richmond. That’s where we found Denise Studeny, who works with teen girls at the Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court in Fairfax County. 

“Often times they come in front of a court because of a domestic assault, they got into a fight with a parent,” she said. 

Studeny has worked in foster care and the criminal justice system for over 20 years. The idea of trauma-informed practices and care started roughly a decade ago, she says, but it’s become more common recently.

“Instead of looking at those things as ‘What was wrong with you? What was happening?’ we look at ‘What happened to you,'” she explained. “We peel back the pieces and we learn that events that occurred in their life that may have had an impact on their behaviors.”

Events like divorce, being separated from family, death of a loved one or domestic abuse are all examples. 

Experts say sometimes this is a cycle. Traumatized youth have parents or loved ones who also experienced trauma. Over time, it can take forms of depression or incidents of acting out. 

If young people are given the tools and support, Studeny says they can break the cycle and learn to cope with their problems better. 

A series of bills aimed to bring these practices into different areas, such more school counselors, improving the foster care system and with providing more care to low-income youth.

Secretary Daniel Carey from the Dept. of Health and Human Services, Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-District 9), Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-District 12), Del. Jeff Bourne (D-District 71) and Del. Chris Peace (R-District 97) have all been involved with various initiatives on this and spoke on a panel at the conference about them. 

Sen. Dunnavant says the first place to intervene is in the classroom.

“If we didn’t connect with those kids and they had a certain rate on their ace scores, we lost them forever,” Sen. Dunnavant said.

So you know, ACE or Adverse Children Experiences, measure levels of childhood trauma. 

Part of the General Assembly’s budget includes money to restructure a program within the Department of Medical Assistance Services (DMAS), which works with people on Medicaid. 

The program would expand behavioral health services for diagnosed youth to include trauma-informed practices and implement them in schools. 

“The teachers and the educators need more than just their expertise, so to actually identify these needs in the kids and solve them so they can actually participate in their education,” Sen. Dunnavant said. 

The budget still needs to be approved. Gov. Ralph Northam has until May 3 to sign off on it.