Back in 2010, after Tonette Walker became Wisconsin’s first lady, she went to a workshop with other new first ladies from other states, a kind of orientation. One of the topics there was choosing causes to champion.
“They were talking to the first ladies about ‘pick what you love, do something you love so you can make a difference,’” Walker recalled Tuesday morning during a visit to La Crosse as part of the Walker administration’s two-day Cabinet on the Road event.
Walker, who became first lady when husband Scott was elected governor in 2010, gravitated toward foster care as her cause, narrowing her focus after she talked with a couple of doctors who worked with abused children about two ideas that were new to her: adverse childhood experiences and trauma-informed care.
“That was it. I was done. I knew that would be it,” said Walker, who launched her Fostering Futures effort in 2011 to spread awareness about the effect of childhood trauma on people’s lives and the importance of taking that into account when dealing with both children and adults. “Our goal every day is to have all of Wisconsin trauma informed.”
Trauma-informed care boils down to approaching people — children and adults — who get into trouble with different questions in mind. “It’s not ‘what’s wrong with you?’ It’s ‘what happened to you?’” said state Office of Children’s Mental Health director Elizabeth Hudson, who visited La Crosse Tuesday with Walker. “We often judge the way people act without understanding their experiences.”
Walker and Hudson visited La Crosse Tuesday because in many ways the county is at the forefront in the state in terms of adopting trauma-informed care. Their first stop was Stepping Stones at La Crosse’s Family and Children’s Center, one of at least 18 child advocacy centers in the state. Stepping Stones is very effective in practicing trauma-informed care, Walker said, noting that Stepping Stones makes video recordings of its interviews of abused children that can be shared with other agencies and people who might need to know what the children have been through to help them heal.
The two also spent more than 45 minutes at the La Crosse County administrative building with about a dozen people who practice trauma-informed care in a variety of capacities, including county social workers in the Child Protective Services department and those dealing with foster care, juvenile justice system staff members, and an administrator from the La Crosse School District.
One of the things that puts La Crosse County ahead of others in the state in terms of trauma-informed care is the coordinated approach being taken, particularly in dealing with children. In addition to training staff in CPS and the juvenile justice system and clinicians, the county also offers TIC training sessions for parents and foster parents. And the county is partnering with the La Crosse School District to help get teachers up to speed, which Hudson and Walker said is important because schools are the first line of defense, the first place where traumatized children can get the help they need.
“You guys are way ahead in trauma-informed care,” Walker told the county group. “You’ve trained almost every person in the system that works with children. … You could definitely be a model for Wisconsin.”
Childhood trauma comes in a wide variety of forms, including physical and sexual abuse, neglect, death of a loved one, divorce, vehicle accidents, natural disasters or fires, major medical problems and even being pulled out of a problem home to go into foster care. For some children in foster care, separation from their parents and family members is the adverse childhood experience, or ACE, that looms the largest.
Hudson said ACEs not only have an impact mentally and emotionally, they also have a physical effect on children. The stress hormones released because of traumatic events can actually have an adverse effect on the neurological connections and change the way people react to stress.
In addition to digging into people’s experiences with questions about ACEs they have gone through, trauma-informed care practices also can include knowing and avoiding triggers for stress in people. For example, Jason Witt, the county’s human services director, said Circuit Court Judge Ramona Gonzalez has made it a practice to not shackle juvenile defendants in court. And the county’s juvenile detention system now has a “chill” room where youths who are confined can go to relieve stress.
Walker emphasized that trauma-informed care is complex, a mindset more than a specific method, and not something that can be achieved overnight.
“This isn’t just another buzzword. This isn’t just another slogan. It isn’t just another program because trauma-informed care is not a program,” Walker said. “It’s a philosophy and it’s a systems change. People want to see change within their system, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”