First Spouses Convene to Align Activities to Prevent and Address Child Trauma

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, the First Spouses (or the spouses of 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 like childhood poverty, infant mortality, foster care, and the opioid crisis. First Spouses from every state were invited, with ten (9 women and 1 man) accepting the invitation. They spent two days together to learn more about "ACEs," or Adverse Childhood Experiences, and how they intersect with the public health efforts at the state level and trauma informed care initiatives throughout the United States.

The symposium included:

  • 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, led 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 focus and great interest. Sanders shared that one-in-four kids 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 Services is not setup to respond any differently to an infant than a 16-year old. System failures can affect the health and wellbeing 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 society has on a young person’s developing nervous system. The audience 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"). There was also discussion about "shifting perspective" (Wisconsin’s theme for trauma informed transformation throughout the state) away from viewing behaviors with judgment, and instead seeing survival adaptations – like isolation or hypervigilance – as strengths that help a person manage the effects of trauma. The group had a collective “aha moment” in rethinking impulsivity more positively as decisiveness and seeing distraction as vigilance to the environment.

First Spouses left the meeting thinking of ways to initiate social service system and community reforms in their states 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. There was an openness to explore trauma informed change to promote resilience, wellbeing, and health.

The First Spouses also had an evening of guided mindful relaxation where they created paintings as an exercise of art express
The First Spouses also had an evening of guided mindful relaxation where they created paintings as an exercise of art expression, absent language.

“Traumatic experiences and toxic stress affect millions of children, families, and adults in the United States,” First Lady Tonette Walker said. “I’m thrilled that First Spouses came to Wisconsin and hope that our collective learning will translate into the integration of trauma informed principles in initiatives and services in their states and beyond. This was a big step forward in creating a trauma informed nation.”

The First Spouses meeting was part of First Lady Tonette Walker’s bigger effort to expand Wisconsin’s trauma informed activities into action at the national and federal level. The group of state leaders plans to check in at the National Governor’s Association meeting in a few months – and, in the meantime, they will continue to dialog and support each other’s work.

The First Spouses
The First Spouses
First Lady Tonette Walker (WI) and  First Lady Kristin Cooper (NC)
First Lady Tonette Walker (WI) and First Lady Kristin Cooper (NC)

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

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