Wisconsin aims to be first trauma-informed state; seven state agencies lead the way

Here in California, many people think that it’s only liberal Democrats who have a corner on championing the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and putting it into practice. That might be because people who use ACEs science don’t expel or suspend students, even if they’re throwing chairs and hurling expletives at the teacher. They ask “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?” as a frame when they create juvenile detention centers where kids don’t fight, reduce visits to emergency departments and shrink teen pregnancy rates….among many other things.

Because they do all this and more by abandoning the notion of trying to change people’s behavior by punishing, blaming or shaming them, and instead using understanding, nurturing and healing, some people might think this approach belongs to the purview of one political party.

Mmmmmm….Not so fast.

To paraphrase Tonette Walker, the First Lady of Wisconsin, married to Republican Governor Scott Walker, who was a GOP presidential candidate in 2016:

That’s ridiculous.

Her exact words were: “It’s ridiculous that people say this is a Democratic or Republican issue. We all care about issues concerning families and children. We all care about the outcome of people’s lives, no matter who you are.”

Tonette Walker

In fact, many residents of Wisconsin might think that it’s only conservative Republicans who have a corner on championing ACEs science. That’s because the state — and Tonette Walker — have some serious bragging rights about how they’ve implemented trauma-informed practices based on ACEs science. Since 2012, 43 counties and three tribes have participated in the Wisconsin Trauma Project, as shown in this project maplist of project sites, and an interactive map. Here are some examples of the results:

  • The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin has become the “poster tribe,” according to U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), in educating and integrating practices based on ACEs science. Hundreds of tribal members have been educated about ACEs science, starting with historical trauma. The schools have integrated trauma-informed practices with the result that graduation rates soared from 60 to 99 percent.
  • After all staff members of the Waupaca County Department of Health and Human Services learned about ACEs science and the Child Welfare department started becoming trauma-informed, workers’ burnout rates dropped 23 percent and secondary traumatic stress rates dropped 42 percent over three years. In addition, the number of children placed outside the home dropped 15%, and kinship placements increased.
  • In January 2014 the Wisconsin legislature was the first in the U.S. to pass a joint resolution addressing early adversity and noted the “role of early intervention and investment in early childhood years as important strategies to achieve a lasting foundation for a more prosperous and sustainable state through investing in human capital.”

There are other states where Republican governors are helping lead or are supporting ACEs initiatives —Tennessee, Utah, and Vermont come to mind. And there are states with Democratic governors that have robust ACEs initiatives in their cities, counties, regions and sectors such as education: California, Washington, Montana, Oregon, New York, Massachusetts.

But the focus of this article is on what no other state is doing: In 2016, Wisconsin Gov. Walker directed seven state agencies to learn about ACEs science and to implement practices based on that science for their own workforces. His and his wife’s goal: To make Wisconsin the first trauma-informed state in the U.S.

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