We now know the importance of trauma-informed care, but there is more work to be done
Oprah nailed it. During her recent 60 Minutes special on childhood trauma, she concisely defined the essence of trauma-informed care so everyone can understand it. She said, “It comes down to the question of not, ‘What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with that kid?’ but, ‘What happened to you,’ which is a very different question.” This shift in perspective leads to solutions that get to the root cause of children’s issues, rather than a quick reaction that often stops at punishment.
We call these traumatic events Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). There are several identified ACEs, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect, mental illness of a household member, alcoholism of a household member, illegal drug use of a household member, divorce or separation of a parent, domestic violence towards a parent, and incarceration of a household member. In every corner of Wisconsin, and all across the globe, children are experiencing trauma like those above.
Research shows when a person has one ACE, they are more likely to have another two or more. The most recent national data indicate that almost 25 percent of children in the United States have experienced at least one ACE and almost 22 percent have two or more. In Wisconsin, these rates are lower than the national average, at 21.2 percent and 20.3 percent, respectively.
When trauma is experienced as a child, the unmitigated toxic stress created by these experiences can change brain chemistry, shape educational outcomes, and influence a person’s future health and well-being. Research also shows a strong link between the number of ACEs and adult health. As the number of reported ACEs increase, so does the person’s risk of cancer, diabetes, depression, alcoholism, drug use, smoking, suicide, homelessness, and more.
Through an initiative I started in 2011 to raise awareness about childhood trauma and trauma-informed care, we set out to ensure that children recover from these life altering experiences by utilizing trauma-informed Care in our daily interactions, in public service systems and organizations, and in government. Our efforts are working here in Wisconsin, and people across the nation and the world are beginning to notice.
This week, a delegation of officials from Oslo, Norway visited Wisconsin to learn more about trauma-informed care and how we’re implementing it throughout our state. The purpose of their visit is to see our state’s successes and take the knowledge and insight back with them, so they may successfully incorporate trauma-informed Care into their services as well.
One of the places we brought the delegation was the Keshena School in the Menominee Nation. The Menominee Nation is a great example of how trauma-informed Care can create change and improve outcomes for individuals and communities.
In 2011, the Menominee Nation recognized an educational and public health crisis among its young people. Leaders and school administrators were struggling to keep students in school, graduation rates were low, and many students faced alcohol and drug addiction.
Tribal leaders took action and partnered with Fostering Futures, which introduced the community to trauma-informed Care principles and training. Soon after, changes were made within health care, early childhood care, and schools.
One change was to have students begin every school day using a digital whiteboard to privately tell their teachers whether they were feeling happy, neutral, or sad — a strategy that demonstrates elder support and encourages younger generations to trust and feel more comfortable asking for help.
The Menominee Nation saw much success and is now nationally recognized for improving educational and public health outcomes by increasing their understanding of historical trauma and childhood adversity, and by developing culturally relevant trauma-informed practices.
We’ve made significant progress in other areas of our state as well, like in state government. Already, six Wisconsin agencies, including the Department of Health Services, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Workforce Development, Department of Children and Families, Department of Corrections, and Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation are implementing trauma-informed Care principles within their interactions with each other, as well as in the services they provide to the people of our state.
Our ultimate goal is to make Wisconsin the first fully trauma-informed state in the nation and pave the way for other states and governments, such as the City of Oslo to follow suit. That means making sure everyone understands toxic stress and ACEs and is trained on trauma-informed Care principles, because everyone has a role to play.
Adversity and trauma are not unique to our state or nation — they are experienced in every corner of the world. We are working together to shift perspectives and help address this global public health crisis.
Tonette Walker is the first lady of Wisconsin and founder of Fostering Futures, an initiative in partnership with organizations throughout Wisconsin to prevent and reduce childhood trauma while working to improve the health and well-being of Wisconsin’s children and their families.