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April 16, 2019

Rep. Trone plans to funnel federal money to early childhood education, opioid prevention

Credit: The Frederick News-Post, Samantha Hogan

As Maryland prepares to roll out a suite of reforms to the way the next generation of students will be educated, those children bring with them the weight of the opioid epidemic.

Congressman David Trone (D-Md.), who has made opioid awareness a focus of his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives, started a three-day listening tour in western Maryland on Tuesday with a stop at the Frederick YMCA to discuss the effect of addiction on parents and children.

Of particular interest to Trone was Head Start, a federally funded early childhood education program for 3- and 4-year-olds in low-income families, which is run by the YMCA in Frederick County. It is estimated that up to a quarter of the families served by the program have an immediate family member living with a substance abuse problem.

 

“This opioid epidemic is just crushing people, and the loss is unbelievable. Here you are seeing it all the way downstream to kids. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than the casualties of the kids,” Trone said.

The rise in opioid use and overdose deaths has changed the landscape of early childhood education and the home lives of many young learners.

Some students are being raised by grandparents — due to a death or incarceration of a parent — or are witnessing substance use, violence or neglect at home, which is then reflected in the behavior of students in the classroom.

“Some of the biggest issues we’re seeing is a peak — if you will — and rise in behavior issues in children. Not only because they may, or may not, have been drug-exposed in-utero, but also their homes are so unstable,” said Colleen Guardia, family services manager at Head Start in Frederick County.

Some behavioral issues can be attributed to what are known as “adverse childhood experiences,” commonly referred to as ACEs. ACEs cover four categories of traumatic or chronic experiences that can harm the brain development of children, including abuse, neglect, household dysfunction and community factors, said Pilar Olivo, the ACEs liaison for the Child Advocacy Center of Frederick County, Maryland.

If adverse experiences occur during a crucial point in brain development, the side effects can be long-lasting and detrimental to the child, she said.

“For healthy brain development, children need to have repeated positive interactions with a caregiver,” Olivo said.

Olivo is married to Geordie Wilson, publisher of The Frederick News-Post.

Head Start of Frederick County uses indicators of adverse experiences in its student application and selection criteria, so as to identify the neediest families.

Between 12 and 13 percent of families disclose in the application process that there is substance abuse in the immediate family, and the staff expect the real level is closer to 20 or 25 percent, said Stacy Wantz, the program director for Head Start in Frederick County.

More than drugs, however, can influence early childhood outcomes.

Statewide trends show that physical and sexual abuse of children is declining, but neglect is on the rise, Olivo said. When children are neglected or left without meaningful human contact for most of the day — due to parents working multiple jobs or because a sibling is the caregiver — there can be delays in self-regulation of emotions and language to express feelings, which later manifest as behavioral problems in the classroom, Wantz said.

Head Start of Frederick County focuses on discussing feelings, what it means to be happy and sad, boundaries and coping skills to help kids learn to self-regulate and not be labeled “violent” later and placed on a path to incarceration.

Part of the reason Trone is interested in Head Start is because it is an opportunity to invest early in children and education, rather than perpetuate a cycle of poverty and incarceration, he said on Tuesday.

Trone is leading the Freshman Working Group on Addiction in Congress, and is working on bipartisan legislation to increase funding to programs — such as Head Start — to combat the opioid epidemic, he said in an interview. With a divided Republican-controlled Senate and Democratically controlled House, it is necessary to work on cross-aisle solutions, he said.

He also thinks the work group is crafting ideas President Donald Trump (R) could get behind.

“He made many public comments that opioids are a national catastrophe, he just hasn’t done much. So, if we can bring something to him, where he can lay claim to it — he’s going to grab it. It’s an election year,” Trone said. “And you know what? I want everyone to be successful, I want everybody to share in a success, because literally then we can save tens of thousands of lives.”

Trone lost his nephew Ian Trone, 24, to an fentanyl overdose in 2016 on New Year’s Eve. Before his death, Ian was arrested multiple times and moved in and out of treatment programs, which showed Trone firsthand the complexities of living with a substance abuse problem.

“You also can see that there is a way out. I mean he was clean probably 30 of his last 36 months, so he was on a path that could have absolutely landed him in this room — like you or I — with a job, a family and moving on,” Trone said.

Ian’s battle with addiction is one reason why Trone has focused on opioid abuse in his first term, and why he believes early childhood intervention is an important step forward. However, current federal funding levels do not meet all of the local need.

“The need exceeds the money that’s available,” Wantz said.

New federal money for Head Start generally becomes available only when another Head Start program closes in Maryland’s region, which is not desirable, she said. The challenge is that Frederick County is meeting only about half of the potential need for early childhood instructional learning among local low-income families right now. About 400 apply for a spot each year, and the YMCA can accommodate between 242 and 253 students, Wantz said.

Their student capacity is limited by the terms of a federal contract and the availability of teaching space, all of which is either rented from Frederick County Public Schools or other local not-for-profit organizations.

Still, Head Start of Frederick County was able to offer two full-day and 11 half-day prekindergarten sessions for families living below 100 percent of the federal poverty line this school year. And in the fall, it plans to expand to four full-day classrooms and nine half-day sessions.

The benefit of having full-day instructional classrooms is that the YMCA may qualify within the next few years to be a provider of universal prekindergarten, which the state’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — also known as the Kirwan Commission — has proposed as one of its major educational reforms.

State leaders are already aware the existing supply of schools in Maryland do not have enough available instructional space to add prekindergarten in every county and that community agencies will be needed to fill some of the initial instructional gaps. Wantz said Head Start and FCPS were not competing for students, and it was too early to say if the YMCA would take on some of the prekindergarten instruction in Frederick County.

If universal prekindergarten were instituted in Maryland, however, it could free up resources for the YMCA to begin offering Early Head Start, which is a newer federal program that offers instruction for children from birth to age 5, Wantz said.

“It’s just outrageous that we don’t have pre-K everywhere,” Trone said.