- Associated Press - Monday, February 13, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - First lady Tonette Walker is ramping up visibility for her pet project, with a cameo during her husband’s State of the State address and plans to take her initiative on the road to raise awareness and bolster support.

Fostering Futures is all about trauma-informed care - or, recognizing the lingering effects of traumatic experiences in treating people. At its core, it’s about building relationships.

“This innovative approach changes the way we understand a child’s behavior so we can get at the root of their struggle and identify more effective solutions,” Walker said in a statement.

More than half of Wisconsin residents say they had traumatic experiences as children, which includes witnessing or experiencing abuse, having an incarcerated parent and watching a family member struggle with an addiction, according to a 2012 Department of Health Services report.

Fostering Futures Executive Director Carol Howard said the 21 counties and seven state agencies participating in Fostering Futures are learning how to better reach these people and form lasting bonds.

“Where are the places that are supportive of these fragile families?” Howard said. “And where are the places that might be causing more harm than good?”

Many health departments started by soliciting feedback from patients about their waiting rooms. Minor improvements like rearranging furniture and having staff members greet families as they arrive set the tone of a more welcoming environment, Howard said.

Fostering Futures received $360,300 this year, most of which went toward staff trainings. Walker gave $920,600 to the program in his two-year budget proposal released Wednesday.

The Menominee tribe in Northeastern Wisconsin was part of a Fostering Futures pilot program that ended in 2014. They’re still using the techniques to cope with a painful history includes a loss of land, language and family. Until the 1950s, the federal government separated Native American children from their families and sent them to boarding schools rife with physical and emotional abuse. In 1961, the federal government terminated the tribe’s official status, reinstating it 12 years later after members protested attempts to force them off their reservation.

“Indian tribes have always had trauma in their lives,” said Myrna Warrington, vocational rehabilitation director at the College of Menominee. “Ours had a lot.”

Warrington said the tribe wants younger generations to feel more comfortable asking for help. Grade school students on the tribe’s reservation start each day by using a digital whiteboard to privately tell their teachers whether they feel happy, neutral or sad.

Diane Hieptas, trauma-informed care coordinator for the Menominee Tribal Clinic, said everyone from bus drivers to business owners in Menominee’s community of around 4,000 have learned how to interact more gently. Some offices have loosened their cancellation policies to promote empathy over penalties.

Hieptas said every change answers the same question: “What has happened - and how do we change it from here?”

Tonette Walker hopes lending her name to the effort will lead more communities toward answers.

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