Racine County Human Services Adopts Trauma Informed PerspectiveIn 2017, Racine County had its highest number of children in out-of-home care (foster care, etc.). Case managers already couldn’t keep up with the workload, and early data from community Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) surveys and local home studies showed that there was significant trauma in children and families in Racine.
Something had to be done, or else the numbers were bound to climb.
Kerry Milkie, current manager of 12 years at the Racine County Human Services Department had a plan. She sat down with the County Executive to explain exactly what she needed to reverse their current trends.
“I didn’t ask for additional [direct care/case management] staff, but I did ask for additional supervisory staff so case managers could have more time with supervisors to look at more difficult cases,” she said. “We also needed to embed trauma informed care into our practice.”
New Players at the TableThe first round of training took place in 2018. Child welfare staff along with staff from the Racine Unified School District, were brought together for trauma informed care (TIC) and trauma sensitive schools (TSS) training delivered by SaintA. Overall, 300 staff were educated on understanding trauma and its impact on the children and families they care for.
It made sense for social workers, supervisors, and school counselors to be versed in TIC, Milkie says, but the second year, some atypical players were brought into the mix. Police officers, district attorneys, judges, and probation and parole officers were the focus of the next sessions. Staff in these services interact with clients in equally significant ways as case managers but aren’t always equipped with the skills to understand how trauma can affect an individual’s journey.
By the end of the second year, the county hosted a Train the Trainer program focused on SaintA’s TIC framework – the Seven Essential Ingredients of Trauma Informed Care– specifically for law enforcement with SaintA’s Senior Trainer Tim Grove and Corey Norlander, a SaintA Trainer and Consultant who also serves as a Captain in the Sheboygan County Sheriff’s Department.
“Often, they [police officers] see the worse of the worst,” Milkie says. In the years prior, Racine had experienced a few officer-involved shootings, and the community was growing concerned.
Every law enforcement jurisdiction except for one was able to send an officer to be trained in trauma informed care. Together, they learned more about community policing and the importance of relationship building with the communities they serve. Participants were also introduced to historical trauma, a concept that describes the collective, multigenerational trauma, experienced by a group because of their culture, race or ethnicity, such as enslavement or genocide, and can be passed down through generations. The session also covered how systemic racism and oppression influences how one responds to and interacts with officers in their community.
“I watched skepticism turn into belief, which turned into wondering how we can implement a trauma informed framework into practice,” Milkie says.
One jurisdiction developed a sensory room for their officers to self-regulate and manage the stress of the job, and they continue to use it to this day.
Results in Child WelfareWith a new focus on what happened to families, instead of what the family did or didn’t do, Racine County was able to make impactful changes in their outcomes. Since 2017, there has been a 50 percent decrease in children in out-of-home care. From a consistent 400 children each month in 2017, to 250 children in 2018 and around 174 children in the final months of 2020, Racine County has seen an incredible amount of success in keeping kids safe at home and out of the system.
For Milkie, it wasn’t only about lowering the numbers. “Anyone can return kids home, but the real challenge is making sure they don’t come back.”
A “driver county” is a county with numbers are so big they drive the data for the state. Racine was the only county out of the five largest in Wisconsin that was able to exceed the federal requirement of children returning home from care. Generally, less than 4 percent of kids now return to care after being reunified.
It started by developing strategies and programs that serve the entire family. “We don’t want families to rely on human services workers.
We have to help them work through poverty, develop social and emotional learning skills and understand historical trauma to stop families from coming in and out of the system.”
The Next StepsThe COVID19 pandemic has created new challenges for Milkie and her team, but with a trauma informed perspective, they are finding it easier than ever to adapt. While much of their work is best done face to face, they have found creative ways to reach their clients, like the Here to Help line, which makes resources for families a phone call away in these difficult times.
“We’re a government system, and most systems don’t like change,” Milkie says. But if the last three years has proven anything, it is that change is always possible.
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