Investing in cross-sector networks to build a trauma-informed region

Participants at a Pottstown Trauma Informed Community Connection community meeting, which typically draw between 75 and 130 people. Courtesy of Valerie Jackson/PTICC.

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When Suzanne O’Connor first joined the Philadelphia ACE Task Force (PATF)—a group then composed mostly of pediatricians who wanted to put ACE science into practice—she did more listening than talking.

“I wasn’t a doctor, I wasn’t a clinician, but a teacher trying to integrate trauma-informed care into early childhood education,” she says. “What struck me the most was what educators didn’t know about social services, mental health and even physical health. We didn’t have language for what we were seeing with kids who were particularly challenging.”

ACEs gave O’Connor that language. She became a passionate advocate for trauma training for early childhood and K-12 teachers. Now, as director of education for United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, O’Connor is helping trauma-informed practice to ripple across the region.

United Way, which recently honed its mission to focus on ending intergenerational poverty, funds and supports cross-sector networks in Philadelphia, surrounding counties and the borough of Pottstown, all part of United Way’s effort to “build a trauma-informed region.”

What O’Connor learned as part of the ACE Task Force informs her approach now: an emphasis on two-generation solutions to seemingly intransigent problems like poverty or homelessness. “There are reasons why a child can’t sit still and learn how to read,” she says. “There’s the whole family system. There’s ACEs. Our approaches are embedded in [the idea that] we need to understand the root cause.”

In 2018, United Way awarded three-year grants to PATF ($20,000 per year) and the Pottstown Trauma Informed Community Connection (PTICC; $50,000 per year), cross-sector networks that include community members along with organizational representatives from across education, juvenile justice, human services, law enforcement, philanthropy and public policy.

O’Connor noted that such networks foster a momentum and sense of shared mission that sustains the work over time. “People change jobs, but the same organizations keep coming [to the table],” she said. “The agencies are committed.”

Cross-sector networks also build relationships that help agencies make meaningful and timely referrals for clients who need help. “If child care centers have partnerships with neighborhood social service providers, that is a trauma-informed system…that is something very concrete,” she said.

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