ATLANTA — Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker said she has seen it time and time again. A child repeatedly visiting her bench throughout their life — from child court to adolescent court to adult court — because they weren’t given the support they needed as a toddler.
The issue, she said, is one the criminal justice system has been trying to bring to the forefront, calling for policy changes for years.
Walker was among child advocates, medical providers and social workers who pleaded with lawmakers for increased mental health resources for infants and toddlers. The House Study Committee on infant and toddler social and emotional health heard hours of testimony on how Georgia’s zero to 3-year-olds are suffering.
Expulsion rates for preschoolers are three times more than kindergarten through 12th-grade students — children of color and boys more likely to be kicked out of the classroom for bad behavior.
But child-care providers have been asking the wrong questions, Walker said.
“Instead of saying to our children ‘why do you act this way,'" she said, “we have to say ‘what has happened to you to cause this behavior?’”
Often a child has suffered a traumatic experience or an ongoing stressful situation that leads back to the courtroom throughout their lives, she said.
Dr. Veda Johnson, an Atlanta pediatrician, said some children are affected more than others.
“There’s a disparity, children of color and children who live in poverty are exposed to much more trauma than those who are not,” she said.
Child advocates called for increasing mental health services to toddlers and infants — a critical development stage in a child’s life.
In Georgia, the youngest child to die by suicide was 9 years old in 2017, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Dr. Erica Fener Sitkoff, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, said that Georgia needs to do better in providing channels for health services channels and educating parents on their existence.
“If we don’t intervene early, they’re going to end up in a much higher risk situation,” she said.
One issue, Fener Sitkoff said, is Georgia does not have a data system tracking child health-care providers, so no one is sure if the number fits the need of the population.
But, healthy children, first, need a healthy mother.
Fener Sitkoff strongly recommended the board push to extend Medicare mental health coverage for new mothers from the standard 60 days after birth to 12 months.
Committee members said this may come out as a recommendation from the House Study Committee on maternal mortality. Georgia has the highest maternal mortality rate in the country.
“Every child comes into this world with the capacity to change the world,” Johnson said. “Every child.”
Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for The Valdosta Daily Times, CNHI's newspapers and websites.