Integrating the knowledge about ACEs, brain science, and resilience into practice has been a cornerstone of Walla Walla’s trauma-informed community initiative. At every monthly meeting of their Community Resilience Initiative (CRI) team, the first item on the agenda is “Integration” and attendees are asked, “What have you done since the last meeting to help integrate our principles and learning into your daily work and into the work of your staff?”
Here’s how several members of the CRI team answered that question when I met with them:
- Mike Bates, Director of the Walla Walla County Corrections Department: Mike is in charge of the Juvenile Justice Center (a youth detention facility) in addition to the county’s adult jail.
“In the youth detention program, we had a point system where, if a kid didn’t make their bed for example, or they would commit any number of other infractions, they would lose points. But they had to have a certain number of points at the end of each day to get certain privileges. When we started looking at the brain science behind ACEs, and trauma and resilience, we realized it would be more effective to focus on the positive things we wanted kids to do and reinforce that, instead of the negative reinforcement and all the focus on what they were doing wrong. So, it’s a little thing, but instead of saying, “You didn’t make your bed, so you’re losing a point,” we started saying, “Hey, you made your bed – good job! You’ve earned a point toward today’s privileges.” Mike explains that all of the teachers in the youth detention center have taken the ACES, trauma and resilience training, and while the teachers at this point don’t explicitly talk with the youth about ACES and resilience, they are at least thinking about it as they interact with the kids.
When I asked about what’s happening at the adult jail, Mike explained that things have been a bit different there. “I took over the county jail two years ago,” he explains. “I spent the first few weeks just going in and looking at how staff interact with the inmates. I realized we needed a culture change.” But, he admits that changing the culture has been a real challenge.
“There are some basic things we need to do, like treating inmates with respect, saying thank you – you did a good job today.”
He has been talking with Teri Barila about how to get all of his employees at the county jail trained about ACEs, trauma and resilience, but hasn’t yet come up with a workable plan to do this, given all of the mandatory trainings his staff are required to complete every year, and the budget limitations that don’t allow for paying overtime for staff.
“Unfortunately, our criminal justice system with adults is more rigid. There’s this attitude of ‘you did the crime, now do the time.'” But he explains that they’re getting ready to start a drug court program. “We understand we need to have a different way of treating people with drug addiction. I think the training over the years about ACEs has influenced our judges to be more willing to look at alternatives to jail.” Their drug court is going to take on the tougher cases, not the easy, low-hanging fruit cases that he’s seen other drug court programs take.
Mike also represents Walla Walla county in the national “Data Driven Justice Initiative” started under President Obama and now led by the National Association of Counties (NaCO) to effectively use data to identify and divert people charged with low-level offenses, and those with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders, out of the criminal justice system and into effective, community-based care.
In Walla Walla County, they’ve identified 140 people in the community who are constantly in crisis, and who are the “super users” of the community’s resources, from emergency room visits and mental health services to homelessness and incarceration.
He explains,”Given what we know about ACEs and trauma, these 140 people probably have pretty high ACEs scores. Hopefully, we’ll be able to draw on that knowledge to effectively serve these individuals as well.” One immediate thing they’re doing is developing a common release of information and consent form so hospitals, lawyers, county jail staff, and others can share information with each other and get these folks the services and resources they need in a coordinated way.
- Becky Turner, Executive Director of the Successful Transition and Reentry (STAR) Project:
STAR staff, in addition to Becky, include a case manager, a housing coordinator, an employment specialist, a pre-release transition specialist who works at Washington State Penitentiary to develop reentry plans and coordinate services for people who will be released to Walla Walla, and a special populations program manager for people convicted of sexual offenses. STAR (along with other reentry programs around the state) has been funded by the proceeds of a class-action lawsuit against AT&T for charging extortionary phone rates in the Washington prisons, though Becky and her team are currently looking for other longer-range sustainable sources of funding.
Becky and her staff integrate the ACES and resilience knowledge into their reentry work starting with initial intake into their reentry program, when they do an ACEs assessment to help identify each client’s needs and appropriate services. Then, in the case management part of their program, they do 1:1 and some small group work on developing resilience skills. Their knowledge of ACEs and resilience also informs the work they do to teach clients skills to be good tenants and successful employees in their housing and employment programs.
- Tony McGuire, instructor for the Building Maintenance Technology program taught inside the Washington State Penitentiary:
Tony was an employer for 16 years, so he knows what employers are looking for in good employees. Now, as an instructor at the Washington State Penitentiary, Tony helps the incarcerated men in his Building Maintenance Technology course understand that a big part of their employability is dependent on their ability to regulate their emotions on the job. “They can only do this when they understand the impact of their childhood and other trauma they’ve experienced,” he explains. So, Tony gives the guys the ACEs quiz and they talk about the challenges they’ve had. But more importantly, they talk about resilience and building skills and strengths to move forward.
“One guy recently took the ACEs quiz and found out he had an ACEs score of 10. His first question to me was ‘Now what do I do?’ So we started talking about the strengths he already has and what he can do to keep building on that.”
Tony uses the Resilience and ACEs playing cards developed by CRI with the men in his class and on a daily basis, they talk about how to develop their skills in resilience and self-regulation. Tony also has the training presentation he got from Teri and the CRI Team, and he goes over that with the men in his class. “There’s one slide about hitting a ‘breaking point’ that the men really relate to – so we talk about that, and then we focus on the building blocks of resilience. I tell the guys, ‘eat the chicken, throw away the bone.’ Take what applies and is meaningful and useful for you – and don’t worry about the rest of it.”
- Jeff Gwinn, supervisor for the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program
“When we train and recruit CASA volunteers, we train them about ACEs,” Jeff explains. He had Teri Barila provide the basic training about ACEs, brain science and resilience to his CASA volunteers so they understand the brain science as they are getting into working with the children for whom they serve as advocates. “But it also helps our CASAs to understand the parents of the children they’re advocating for,” he adds. “When the CASA goes out and talks with the child’s teachers, pediatrician, parents, others – they can ask the right questions to understand some of the stressors on the child and what may be behind the child’s behaviors.” And that understanding, in turn, helps the CASA understand how best to advocate for the child in court.
Jeff also comes to the CRI meetings every month to stay informed about what’s happening with CRI, trainings and opportunities he can promote to their CASA volunteers. “Our CASAs are are required to have 12 hours of additional training every year. This year, we’re sending some of the CASAs to the Beyond Paper Tigers conference that Teri and her team are putting on in June.”
They incorporate the language of ACEs into the court reports the CASAs provide. “Our judges are familiar with the ACEs language, and it helps the judges to understand what it might take for a child and family to be successful.”
Jeff describes the CASAs role, in part as being ‘stress detectives’ – asking questions and understanding patterns and behaviors with a child, and what may be happening with them. “We want to focus on positive reinforcement – catching them doing something right,” he explains.
It occurred to me as I listened to all of them sharing their integration work that the common thread is that focus on strengths, resilience and SUCCESS.