Trauma-Informed Care: An interview with UW's Suzanne O'Connor

An interview with Suzanne O’Connor, United Way's Senior Advocate for a Trauma-Informed Region.

For many years, the word “trauma” was exclusively referred to as a particular type of injury – that of a wound or injury to physical, living flesh caused by an external object. However, in 1980 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders and the science explaining how extremely stressful experiences can alter the brain, just as surely as a physical injury can, began to grow. Trauma is now widely understood to refer not only to easily visible physical injuries, but also to extreme experiences or adversities that can produce physical, psychological, and emotional injuries. As with obvious physical injuries, there are both prevention and treatment strategies.

For the past decade, United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey along with its partners have worked to promote greater awareness and understanding of trauma and access to Trauma-Informed Care training. In 2004, Suzanne O’Connor joined United Way as a project manager for Early to Learn. Not long after she became increasingly interested in questions related to parents, behavioral health, and trauma. After reading about expulsions of children from pre-K due to behavioral issues, Suzanne became devoted to the cause. By 2009 she had led the launch of United Way’s Healthy Parenting Initiative and today she serves as our Senior Advocate for a Trauma-Informed Region. We asked Suzanne to reflect on the great strides made in trauma-informed care. This is what she had to say:

Ten years ago, trauma-informed care was not a commonly used phrase. Fast forward to 2020 and Pennsylvania’s Governor Wolf introduced a “Trauma-Informed PA” plan to support trauma-related efforts. How did our United Way play a role in growing awareness in this field?

From the launch of the Healthy Parenting Initiative in 2009, our United Way has invested in an increasingly diverse set of initiatives related to raising trauma awareness and building expertise. We’ve helped in the development of training systems and funded access to the training courses across all sectors of non-profit and education. As a result, we have developed trauma-informed care champions at multiple touchpoints across our nonprofit and education sectors. We have made it possible to train over 20,000 professionals in trauma reaching over 2,000 organizations across PA and NJ. The synergy we built amongst regional partners and the thousands of people trained, both directly and indirectly impacted the state’s plan.

What is a key takeaway or something that you learned through United Way’s efforts in growing Trauma-Informed Care throughout our region?

The key takeaway is the transformational nature of becoming trauma-informed. People come to learn about trauma to learn new strategies to work with their students or clients and end up learning so much about themselves and making positive changes in their lives.

What do you hope to see in the next ten years of trauma-informed work?

It is my hope that there are new standards in trauma-informed care in childcare, education, and other human services sectors and public funding to support it. For example, if childcare centers were required to be trained in trauma-informed care, we could drastically decrease the number of instances we see of pre-school expulsions. Behavioral issues resulting from a traumatic experience, especially in children, can be managed. But it takes a deep understanding to recognize the signs of trauma, and more importantly, your role in co-regulating the children in your care. A child’s ability to self-regulate and “behave” develops through interaction with caregivers such as parents and teachers and is dependent on predictable, responsive, and supportive environments.

As we celebrate our 100th anniversary we want to recognize the partners that have made us stronger. Is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge or thank as part of our ten years of leadership in this space?  

I would like to thank Carole Haas Gravagno for her investment in this work and trust in us. Additionally, we are grateful for our partnership with Lakeside Global Institute, and their ability to consistently provide high-quality trauma training. Diane Wagenhals, who writes all the training curriculum for Lakeside, has been the heart and soul of our impact. Her ability to translate “trauma-informed care” to the everyday person and make it accessible has changed the lives of not only the professionals who take the courses, but all the children and families they touch. Our region is fortunate to have all this healing power as we confront racism and grieve the losses of the pandemic.


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