State leadership is demonstrating what does not seem possible in Washington right now – to stand together to address some of the most pressing public health concerns facing communities. With support and leadership from Casey Family Programs, 11 spouses of state governors came together in Wisconsin to discuss trauma-informed care as central to addressing some of the most critical social and health issues for children and families, such as childhood poverty, infant mortality, foster care, and the opioid crisis.
The "First Spouses" from every state were invited by Tonette Walker, First Lady of Wisconsin; 10 (9 women and 1 man) accepted the invitation. They spent Sept. 13 and 14 together to learn more about adverse childhood experiences science, and how the science intersects with the public health efforts at the state level, and with trauma-informed care initiatives throughout the United States.
- First Lady Lauren Baker (Massachusetts)
- First Lady Deborah Bryant (Mississippi)
- First Gentleman Wade Christensen (Oklahoma)
- First Lady Kristin Cooper (North Carolina)
- First Lady Linda Daugaard (South Dakota)
- First Lady Angela Ducey (Arizona)
- First Lady Sheena Greitens (Missouri)
- First Lady Crissy Haslam (Tennessee)
- First Lady Susan Hutchinson (Arkansas)
- First Lady Donna Walker (Alaska)
- First Lady Tonette Walker (Wisconsin, Host)
David Sanders, executive vice president of Systems Improvement for Casey Family Programs, began the convening with the provocative statement, “government intervention can cause trauma.” The room of First Spouses and people closest to the most powerful government officials of the 10 states tuned in with great interest. Sanders said that one in four children in California would be involved in child welfare — and that the system, by design, does not respond effectively to neglect. Most chilling was a reminder that child protective service agencies arenot set up to respond any differently to an infant than a 16-year old. System failures can affect the health and well being of a child through growth and development, and across the lifespan.
Trauma and ACEs experts Laura Porter and Amelia Franck Meyer engaged the audience in biology lessons, and the positive and negative affects that toxic stress has on a young person’s developing nervous system. The participants heard about the power of parent-child attachment and the importance of educating parents and children to self-calm and self-regulate (i.e., “breathing together“). They also discussed how to shift perspective, which is Wisconsin’s theme for trauma-informed transformation throughout the state, away from viewing behaviors with judgment, and instead seeing survival adaptations, such as isolation or hypervigilance, as strengths that help a person manage the effects of trauma. The group had a collective “aha moment” in rethinking impulsiveness more positively as decisiveness, and seeing distraction as vigilance to the environment.
The First Spouses left the meeting thinking of ways to initiate social service system and community reforms in their own states; reforms that engage reliable and healthy relationships, use locally delivered resources, address real‐time needs, build on natural community supports, and ensure culturally specific responses and resources. The participants expressed an openness to exploring trauma-informed change to promote resilience, well being, and health.
About the Author
Helga Luest currently works for a government contractor and manages a number of federal projects related to behavioral health, trauma, and violence prevention. In 2016 she was appointed to the Maryland Governor’s Family Violence Council and she serves on the U.S. Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus Advisory Group. Helga also serves on the board of the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice - a national nonprofit advancing the transformation of trauma informed practices throughout the United States. In 2010 she was awarded the Congressional Unsung Hero Award for her effective advocacy work on violence prevention and response. In her free time, Helga facilitates two social media groups called Trauma Informed where advocates, survivors, researchers, and other contribute content and commentary on issues related to trauma, prevention, and resilience - on Facebook & LinkedIn.