First Lady Tonette Walker

Wisconsin's First Lady Works Behind the Scenes to Help the State's Children

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Opportunity Lives

April 1, 2016

First ladies tend to gravitate toward projects with tangible goals to put in place with the opportunity for photo-ops that show their work to the public. It’s kind of like the kissing baby gimmick that politicians have practiced forever on the campaign trail; a warm feel-good picture looks good in the papers and helps win votes.

When Tonette Walker became the first lady of Wisconsin in 2011, she attended a National Governors Association (NGA) event for incoming first families. One of many breakout sessions that weekend was geared towards helping new first ladies find initiatives to champion back home.

Despite incentives and encouragement from the NGA to get first ladies involved in foster care, Walker was initially unconvinced that the work was in her future. Back in Wisconsin, Walker attended a few more meetings as she tried to decide which kind of cause would most benefit from her time and support. At each meeting, however, Walker felt more and more drawn towards work with foster children.

But the initiative that drew her focus wasn’t one that could be easily photographed or explained. Nevertheless, if successful, it would leave a lasting impact on Wisconsin’s children and families, long after the Walkers have left the governor’s mansion.

Trauma Informed Care (TIC) is a different way to understand children and families who have experienced adversity. In fact, the TIC governing idea is: “Instead of asking what’s wrong with a person, let’s start asking what might have happened to this person.” Exposure to potentially traumatic events, called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) often accumulate to negatively impact how children and, later, adults, are able to cope with adversity. Some of these 10 ACEs include family struggles with abuse, alcoholism, incarceration or divorce.

Walker herself has a few “ACEs” in her own past, which inspired the first lady to take to heart how childhood trauma can have lasting effects into adulthood for many.

Walker and her team quickly realized it wasn’t just foster children who needed TIC; but everyone who touched the lives of these children as well. The parents, siblings, grandparents, and foster parents of children in the system needed a different model of care.

Soon, the umbrella expanded to include Wisconsin’s children and families who may touch any part of the state’s multiple systems of care but who weren’t necessarily in the foster care system. They were children on Medicaid or welfare and possibly at risk of entering foster care. Fostering Futures, the name of the initiative to institute TIC statewide in Wisconsin, became not just a program to help children already in foster care, but a way to impact the larger systems involved in supporting a wide range of children and families.

The use of TIC is only in practice in various pockets of the country, in a few cities and in small areas of other states. What is unique about Tonette Walker’s mission is her determination to make TIC the standard of care across her entire state; the first time in the United States.

Fostering Futures TIC is in place in three different communities in Wisconsin: a tribal village with the Menominee Nation reservation; in an inner-city neighborhood of Milwaukee; and in a rural area of Douglas County. These three populations are the perfect testing ground for informing how to best implement TIC across the rest of the state.

What does TIC look like in practice in these communities? Fostering Futures is in Phase II, which involves working with 13 county child welfare agencies in order to educate people on the prevalence and impact of adverse childhood experiences and how, by knowing this, the county agencies can more effectively prevent and address child abuse and neglect.

As an example: social workers and wardens with the Department of Corrections learn how certain ACEs may have landed some of their inmates in their system and how incarceration negatively impacts the children of prisoners. Having this knowledge helps corrections officials interact with inmates and their families in a more healthy manner, in order to help break the cycle of violence and criminality that led to incarceration in the first place and not only prevent violence in the prisons, but also help reduce recidivism and keep the children of prisoners from becoming prisoners themselves one day.

The legacy of Walker’s implementation of Trauma Informed Care in Wisconsin won’t be felt for “at least a generation,” the first lady says. That desire to have a feel-good and easily photographed social program wasn’t what drove the formation of Fostering Futures; it was a desire to fundamentally change the way children and families are treated by all aspects of their government, for the better.

Given the bipartisan support Fostering Futures enjoys and the buy-in from individuals and agencies across Wisconsin, the effects of the Walker governorship won’t just put Scott in the history books, but Tonette as well.