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Mental Health and Well-Being

Integrating Trauma-Informed Practices Across State Government: The Wisconsin Way

January 31, 2018


A growing body of research establishes that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)—traumatic experiences in a person’s life occurring before the age of 18 that the person remembers as an adult—may negatively affect health and well-being throughout a person’s life span. The impact of ACEs, however, can be ameliorated by trauma-informed practices, including early childhood interventions that mitigate social and environmental risks for families and promote resilience.

As discussed in a previous post, there has been a promising surge in proposed policies that recognize the impact of ACEs and incorporate trauma-informed approaches. The increased focus on ACEs science has been described as “a nonpartisan issue in politically challenging times,” and advocates from all sides of the political spectrum have championed trauma-informed policy approaches. Some states have sought to integrate trauma-informed policy approaches throughout all levels of state government and decision-making.

Wisconsin has been a leader in integrating trauma-informed policy across its state government. Much of the impetus to integrate trauma-informed policy throughout the state has been due to the efforts of Wisconsin First Lady Tonette Walker. Since assuming her role as First Lady, Tonette Walker has adopted trauma-informed care as her platform issue. In 2011, she organized the Fostering Futures initiative to raise awareness about how ACEs shape people’s lives. The initiative has grown over time and has led the charge in training government employees across various state agencies on trauma-informed practices.

In 2014, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to pass a joint resolution addressing early childhood adversity and calling for state policy decisions to take into account ACEs science. Earlier, states such as Washington had employed state policy primarily to support local capacity-building to address the health effects of trauma. The resolution provides that the “Wisconsin state legislature will acknowledge and take into account the principles of early childhood brain development and will, whenever possible, consider the concepts of toxic stress, early adversity, and buffering relationships, and note 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.” While the resolution itself did not authorize new programs or mandates, it represented a critical legal tool for raising awareness and provided an important framework for state level decision-making.

In 2016, Governor Scott Walker directed seven state agencies to participate in a learning collaborative led by the Fostering Futures initiative to learn about ACEs and to implement trauma-informed practices for their departmental workforces. The agencies participating include the Department of Health Services Division of Public Health, the Department of Health Services Children’s Long-Term Supports, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Workforce Development. Several of these agencies have already trained their entire staff on ACEs science and trauma-informed practice. The positive impacts of these initiatives are already being realized. For example, the Economic Development Corporation saw a drastic reduction in its voluntary employee attrition rate the first year these approaches were implemented.

Other state agencies have sought to adopt trauma-informed practices as well, including the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the State Public Defender’s Office. The Department of Justice has worked toward improving community response to sexual assault by implementing a trauma-informed, victim-centered approach. The State Public Defender’s Office is also incorporating trauma-informed practices to benefit its staff as well as its clients. The Public Defender’s Office has participated in a study looking at the impact of compassion fatigue—the cumulative physical, emotional, and psychological effects resulting from continual exposure to others’ traumatic experiences—on its employees and how to mitigate these effects.

Several states have passed similar resolutions calling for state policy decisions to consider ACEs science. In 2014, California passed a resolution echoing the language of Wisconsin’s resolution and urging the Governor to recognize the roles of early intervention and investment in children as important strategies. In 2017, Utah passed a resolution encouraging state officers, agencies, and employees to promote trauma-informed interventions and practices. Virginia also passed a resolution last year commending the work of Trauma-Informed Community Networks at the local and regional level.

At the federal level, a bipartisan resolution on “Recognizing the Importance and Effectiveness of Trauma-informed Care” was introduced in the House (H. Res. 443) and the Senate (S. Res. 346) this past year. If passed, this resolution would recognize the need for trauma-informed care among existing federal programs and agencies and encourage the use of trauma-informed care within the federal government.

The momentum toward integrating trauma-informed approaches throughout various levels of government is encouraging, and the Network plans to continue to monitor policy developments in this area. If you have questions about these issues and would benefit from legal technical assistance, please feel free to contact the Network.

This post was developed by Brittney Crock Bauerly, J.D., Staff Attorney for the Network for Public Health Law–Northern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult an attorney in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.