Becoming a Trauma-Informed State

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By First Lady Tonette Walker, Co-Founder, Fostering Futures

We now know that Adverse Childhood Experiences — also known as ACEs — are among the most serious public health crises of our time. As with cigarettes and seatbelts, we need a far-reaching action plan with multipronged approaches to deal with this issue. 

In the mid-1990s, when the original ACEs study was completed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, 64 percent of the cohort reported having one or more ACEs. More than 20 years later, approximately 57 percent of Wisconsin adults surveyed reported having experienced at least one ACE.

These high percentages signify that more work is needed to reduce childhood trauma. It also indicates that younger generations will continue to benefit from our efforts to infuse principles of Trauma-Informed Care — or TIC — into our work with families, communities, and service systems. This is no small task and small steps will no longer suffice.

ACEs, and approaches to address traumatic events in childhood, were the topic of a recent forum hosted by Kaiser Permanente’s Institute for Health Policy at its Center for Total Health in Washington, D.C. The event convened nearly 100 thought leaders, including policymakers, academics, researchers, and journalists. I was honored to be part of a panel discussion that explored solutions at the school, community, and policy levels.

First Lady of Wisconsin Tonette Walker (center), co-founder of Fostering Futures, participated in a panel discussion at the Institute for Health Policy’s July forum on Addressing Trauma in School-Aged Children.

Making Wisconsin the First Trauma-Informed State

The urgency and magnitude of this issue are why I have pledged to make Wisconsin the first trauma-informed state, and why I co-founded Fostering Futures, a public-private partnership designed to move the TIC needle in Wisconsin.

The goals of Fostering Futures are to raise awareness of the:

  • impact of ACEs
  • power of developing resiliency
  • importance of trauma-informed organizational change

To date, Fostering Futures has trained more than 10,000 people, including the Governor’s Office staff.

But training isn’t enough. Organizations that sign on to Fostering Futures create organizational “TIC Champion Teams.”  Teams come from a wide range of sectors: state agencies, county health and human services agencies, higher education, tribal governments, and social service organizations.

We promote the involvement of multiple sectors because a TIC-informed approach is not just for health professionals, social service providers, and educators. Everyone has a role to play and it will take everyone to make the impact we need.

Teams participate in 2 years of formal, facilitated, shared learning experiences that is supplemented by ongoing coaching and project evaluation.

The results are promising: TIC Champion Teams have redesigned physical environments, examined and changed human resources practices, and offered wellness opportunities for staff. Cumulatively, these and other initiatives are being driven by the belief that a trauma-informed approach will improve the health and well-being of every Wisconsinite.

Building Momentum, Creating a Movement

Wisconsin’s strength and momentum are the result of both a thriving, grassroots movement as well as governmental leadership at the state and county levels.

Our efforts have had a ripple effect, reaching the federal level: We encouraged the passage of resolutions in the U.S. House and Senate that recognize the importance and effectiveness of TIC. May is now recognized as Trauma-Informed Care Awareness Month and May 22nd is National Trauma-Informed Care Day — it’s not too early to start planning!

This type of transformation is not easy, and research tells us that culture change takes at least seven years. Wisconsin has only just begun, but we are committed and determined. Every person we train, community we touch, and organization we impact helps prevent ACEs and improves the outcomes for children and families who have experienced chronic toxic stress.

We know that trauma-informed approaches have change lives across our state and across the country, and we’re only getting started.