Tonette Walker pushes for ‘trauma-informed care’ across state

Says project makes her open to additional term
Tonette Walker pushes for ‘trauma-informed care’ across state

First lady of Wisconsin Tonette Walker is focusing renewed attention on a program to change the care of children and families, and her work on “Fostering Futures,” she said, is what would keep her wanting to stay in the governor’s mansion past this term.

In an interview with News 3, Tonette Walker says trauma-informed care is what she spends the most time on in her office.

“Our goal is everyone in Wisconsin, whether you’re the bus driver, or superintendent of schools, knows about trauma-informed care,” Tonette Walker said.

She says she learned about trauma-informed care upon becoming first lady in 2011, and eventually began the program “Fostering Futures” to try and get trauma-informed care training throughout all parts of the state.

The concept is that everyone in contact with children and families, from schools to health care facilities, consider personal history and especially “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, as reasons for why people have health or behavioral issues. Treatment, or even discussions with that person, are then informed by the reasons behind reactions.

Tonette Walker spoke about the issue at this year’s State of the State address.

“If a child is belligerent and angry as he meets with his child welfare worker, we used to say ‘What’s wrong with that child?'” Tonette Walker said in her remarks. “But with trauma-informed care, we teach people to ask the question, ‘What happened to that young person?'”


The program is being considered at UW Health, where trauma nurses received training on the basics of trauma-informed care from consultant and advocate Paula Buege.

“I was diagnosed young with bipolar disorder, grew up in a dysfunctional household, was a heroin addict by the time I was in my 20s,” Buege said in the training.

Her story, she says, is shared honestly and and centers on about abusive relationships, overdoses, suicide attempts, prostitution and more in order to make an impact.

“I knew what my normal was, but I didn’t know other families didn’t live like we did,” Buege said.

Her training focuses on that shift in care and explains how what is in a person’s background, especially a child’s, can change their brain and may be the reason for illness and choices later in life.

“To say now to my primary care [provider] ,’Here’s what happened to me, here’s why I don’t trust people,’ and to have her say in response, ‘I’m sorry that happened to you, and I’m really glad you’re here,’ was incredibly moving and made me feel safe,” Buege said.


Tonette Walker says she’s seen those same results and told News 3 that the issue crosses party lines.

“The best part of being at the State of the State and talking was there was someone on the left who jumped out of his seat, threw his arms up in the air and said, ‘Yes!'” Tonette Walker said. “I just stood there for a second and thought,’Yeah!’ I don’t care where you’re sitting. This is bigger than that.”

But while Democrats have cheered this initiative, they’ve panned a plan from Gov. Scott Walker to drug test for public benefits like food stamps, saying it would punish those with addiction issues.

News 3 asked the first lady how these two issues align.

“When I read about it and listen to it myself it’s not ,’Oh, you go to that line, you get no assistance now,'” Tonette Walker said. “We’re saying no, you get more assistance, you get more help. We try to understand, hear your story, try to understand it and give you more help. That’s what I hear, but that doesn’t mean everybody hears that.”

Buege says what she hears is that trauma-informed care would make that process look different.

“I would love for that to involve trauma-informed care because simply penalizing people for the coping strategies they’re using for whatever has happened to them isn’t going to help us in the long run,” Buege said. “We cant segment something out and say, ‘You have to stop that,’ because as I shared in my story, stopping using heroin didn’t fix anything for me, other than I was no longer using drugs. But it didn’t help with everything else going on in my life.”

What both Buege and Tonette Walker say will help is for all of us to simply spend more time listening.

“It isn’t about blame and shame,” Buege said. “We shouldn’t be shamed, or judged. We don’t need to do that to people. We can think of all of it from a human experience standpoint.”


Tonette Walker also tells News 3 that while Gov. Walker regularly jokes about her not wanting him to run for additional terms, her passion for this project affects her thinking on the matter.

“I don’t think I’m going to walk away from this,” Tonette Walker said. “Will it be here for six years? If anyone knows anything about me, if that’s what Scott wants to do, I’m sure I can find a way to make it work for me. We haven’t really made the final decision, I can see every day it looks more and more like we are. I can see him, what he says when he’s out of the road and those kinds of things. So if this is where he wants to be and I feel like I can play some kind of part in that, hopefully, God willing, this is where we’re going to be.”

The state budget proposal currently includes just under $1 million for the Fostering Futures program, which would offer training for community leaders.