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11 U.S. States' First Spouses Convene to Talk About Childhood Adversity


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.

Participants 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, 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.

“Traumatic experiences and toxic stress affect millions of children, families, and adults in the United States,” said Walker. “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 Walker’s larger 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. In the meantime, they will continue to communicate and support each other’s work.
This article was originally published in HuffPost and is republished here, with permission.

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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Comments (5)

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This is awesome, but why did not all first spouses participate?  I'm in Florida (or actually LA--lower Alabama) and I would have loved to see our first spouse join the movement.  With the success of Tarpon Springs and the research available, it seems all states would have been represented.

Just sharing and thanks,



Thanks for some good news! 

As "first spouses" try to make their respective marks at home, I hope having them immersed and versed in ACEs science will result in raising awareness, activating programs, keeping the reality of the high cost of trauma on their hearts and minds and in their actions. Across generations and on every front, from healthcare to education, justice to global warming, housing to employment, the personal finances of high ACEs to solutions leading to prevention and resiliency, ACEs science proves the high cost of NOT creating a trauma-informed society.

When a child's brain develops in a traumatic environment, the cost of a lifetime of fear-driven fight or flight responses is staggering to his or her health, well-being and human potential. 

 Thanks for getting the message out. 

Last edited by Carey Sipp (PACEs Connection Staff)
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