I began my professional career as a pre-school Teacher’s aide. I ended my full-time teaching career as the director of Head Start for Santa Barbara County.

My formal education and work in the field of early childhood education provided me with unforgettable insight into the significance of meeting the needs of our youngest population and their families.

In fact, my decision to switch careers and pursue a law degree was born of my desire to protect young kids from abuse, neglect and other negative life experiences.

My passion to protect and support our youngest remains at the core of many of the decisions I make as your district attorney. After 40 years in education and 28 years in law enforcement, I am convinced the most effective and efficient way to prevent children from any later engagement in nefarious activities is to fully involve them in school activities, and thus prevent them from having any exposure — whatsoever —, to our criminal justice system.

To prevent any contact with our “system,” I believe we must ensure that families facing adversity receive wraparound services as well as multiple layers of support. Such support includes, but is not limited to, access to quality physical and mental health diagnosis and treatment.

At present, too many families lack early access to mental health care, as evidenced nightly on the evening news by a constant barrage of stories about gun violence, homelessness and suicides.

Today, more than ever, access to mental health care is an important and timely public health issue. This is especially true for young children, because we now know most brain development occurs during the first five years of a child’s life, making it the best chance we will ever have to diagnose and treat early signs of mental illness.

Assembly Bill 2698, sponsored by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, will benefit children enrolled in the California State Preschool Program, and infants and toddlers in general child care and development programs, by increasing access to critical early childhood mental health consultation services.

The bill authorizes providers to utilize subsidized child-care funds to provide these valuable services, and offers increased reimbursement rates when these services are provided.

Adequately addressing the mental health needs of youth in California is a significant challenge, considering the state is home to almost 3 million children under age 5, with the highest child poverty rates in the United States. But AB 2698 is a step in the right direction.

I support the legislation because it protects our children and our communities. I know from my experiences in law enforcement, education and motherhood that getting things right — right from the start — is far more effective and far less damaging than trying to address behavioral issues and mental health challenges later in life.

Joyce Dudley is district attorney of Santa Barbara County. The opinions expressed are her own.