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Making Utah a trauma-informed state

College of Social Work playing key effort in helping state agencies understand how trauma informs behavior.

The Social Research Institute has been working with Utah’s Department of Workforce Services for more than 19 years. This work has included interviewing the department’s customers about their experiences, needs and attitudes.

In 2012, the institute added the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) questionnaire to the interviews. The 10-question ACE form provides a quick tally of experiences of abuse, neglect and household dysfunction a person may have experienced before age 18.

“I will never forget the day that our research assistant came in after running the numbers the first time and said, ‘You’re never going to believe what I just found,’” said Mary Beth Vogel-Ferguson, research associate professor.

While only 10 percent of Utah’s general population has an ACEs score of five or higher, 45.8 percent of DWS customers receiving cash assistance scored five or higher.

“The neurobiology exploring the connection between early childhood trauma and adult functioning—especially in executive skills, employment and relationship development—has just been exploding in the last few years,” Vogel-Ferguson said. “It really opened up a whole other way of thinking about the relationship between people being on cash assistance and some of the struggles they have—possible reasons why people can’t keep jobs or have trouble with relationships. Many times, these issues have never been addressed.”

With these numbers in hand, the Department of Workforce Services (DWS) recognized the need for its employees to better understand trauma, so as to better understand what its customers might have happening behind the scenes. In 2016, Vogel-Ferguson was asked to train all DWS employees across the state. She hired Kara Patin (MSW ’14), a trauma awareness trainer and together they designed a four-hour trauma awareness seminar. The seminars provide basic information in five main areas: trauma, adverse childhood experiences, resilience, secondary traumatic stress and self-care. The trainings were offered to anyone providing services in the community—school maintenance workers, police officers, child care providers…everyone.

In all, over the course of nine months, Vogel-Ferguson and Patin held 64 trauma awareness seminars across Utah, training 2,423 individuals. But Vogel-Ferguson calls that the “initial sweep.” Since then, requests for more trainings have been nonstop.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox charged Resilient Utah, a subcommittee of Utah’s Intergenerational Poverty Committee, with making Utah a trauma-informed state. Vogel-Ferguson, subcommittee co-chair, is encouraged by the statewide interest in applying trauma-informed practices across Utah’s institutions and agencies.

“A ‘trauma-informed’ agency includes accountants and security guards and housekeepers —everyone should be trauma-informed,” she said.

An event that might, on the surface, be perceived as ‘crazy’ could be a trauma response rather than aggression, so it’s important for everyone in an agency to have de-escalation skills. “That’s why everybody needs to know this,” she said.

This story initially appeared in Social Work Matters, the College of Social Work’s annual publication.