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Wolf Administration: Office of Advocacy and Reform’s Year-One Accomplishments are Helping Pennsylvanians Heal and Grow

January 14, 2021

In July 2019 as part of his Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters initiative, Governor Tom Wolf signed the “Protection of Vulnerable Populations” Executive Order to establish, among other things, an Office of Advocacy and Reform (OAR). The office was to include a new Child Advocate position and integrate the existing Long-term Care Ombudsman.

“Amid the challenges and uncertainty of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, the OAR finished its first year with a list of accomplishments that included hiring the state’s first child advocate, integrating the long-term care ombudsman, and gathering the right people and projects that are already making a difference in the way government services operate and, more importantly, how they are accountable to the people they serve,” Gov. Wolf said. “I’m incredibly proud of this work and look forward to seeing more accomplishments and their positive effects in 2021.”

Executive Director of OAR, Dan Jurman, recently provided a look-back at the office’s first year and the key goals it met:

Trauma-Informed PA: A Plan to Make Pennsylvania a Trauma-Informed, Healing-Centered State

“Completing the state’s first trauma-informed plan was a top priority and a major accomplishment for the office,” Jurman said. “In looking at the events that led to Governor Wolf creating this office, it seemed clear to me that changing the culture of every organization in the commonwealth to a culture of preventing and healing trauma was tied to so many of the recommendations that came from the Council on Reform. It is, in fact, a core cause of so many of the social ills we face every day; child abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence, opioid addiction, crime, racism, discrimination, and poverty are all tied to trauma and how we respond to it. This initiative brings people of all disciplines, sectors, and walks of life together to go after core causes that will allow us to prevent tragedies by focusing on healing.”

The plan is intended to guide the commonwealth and service providers statewide on what it means to be trauma-informed and healing-centered in Pennsylvania. Trauma-Informed Care is a strengths-based approach to service delivery and organizational structure grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the widespread impact of trauma, including historical and identity-based trauma, that:

  • recognizes the symptoms of trauma and its effects on individuals, families, communities, and those who provide services or work in care settings;
  • understands multiple, complex paths to recovery;
  • emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for providers, survivors, and their families;
  • creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of safety, control, and empowerment;
  • responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma and recovery into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  • seeks to actively prevent re-traumatization.

A four-month process that started with the establishment of a 25-person think tank in February 2020, ended with a plan in July that includes six key components from focusing on prevention and healing, to training with special emphasis on taking care of people’s mental well-being among the many stresses and traumas associated with COVID-19.

Another key component of the plan is ensuring the aspirations of the plan become reality. To that end, OAR has drawn together over 100 experts and stakeholders from every region of the commonwealth to serve on 14 action teams focused on achieving the 48 recommendations of the plan, some of which were already completed or underway by the end of the year. This public/private coalition which includes people from the health, nonprofit, business, faith, education, law enforcement, and government sectors, has gathered under the name HEAL PA. The name stands for Healing-Empowerment-Advocacy-Learning-Prevention-Action.

“And the work wasn’t adversely affected by the pandemic,” Jurman said. “We had always intended for much of the work to be virtual, but the virtual phenomenon of the pandemic actually helped us accomplish a lot.” Jurman said. “It accelerated things. We all recognized that not only was the pandemic making things worse for people who were already traumatized, it was also creating chronic stress and in some cases trauma for every Pennsylvanian. As a result, we all felt the urgency of not only the pandemic, but also the racial tensions and civil unrest that grip the nation. Every member of HEAL PA is bound and determined to make a difference for people in every community across the commonwealth.”

The State’s First Child Advocate

While the state has long had a victim advocate, they did not have a professional dedicated solely to the unique needs of vulnerable children. Enter Pennsylvania’s first child advocate, Nicole Yancy. Her position was also part of the governor’s executive order and her work is not to duplicate the efforts of state agencies such as the Department of Human Services (DHS), but to step back and take a look at the bigger picture of systemic issues and specific concerns and to investigate and guide our systems of care on behalf of children and their families.

Also in its first year, the OAR has worked to establish public advocacy on the Reach Out PA initiative, built new partnerships both inside and outside of state government, elevated the long-term care ombudsman’s office to play a larger role in policy decisions for seniors, provided trauma-informed training for DHS staff, and added an additional staff person who brings a background of trauma therapy to the work of the office.

Overall, the OAR takes it work to heart and is there to serve the needs of people, and to help improve those institutions charged with serving them. They are making a difference in understanding that the state’s most vulnerable, and indeed all Pennsylvanians, need more than programs and services, they need people to help them build resilience, prevent abuse, and heal from what’s happened to them. In this new year, Pennsylvanians should expect even more from OAR and its partners, including the launch of several new initiatives and reforms leading to even more accomplishments in 2021. That will include creating avenues for all of us to heal from everything that has happened to all of us this year, and all that may yet happen in the year to come as we work to recover.

Read more about the Office of Advocacy and Reform here.

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