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State of the Child Forum Brings Major Success to the High Country Community This Past Friday

Tonier Cain has been arrested 83 times, convicted 66 times, and arrived in Boone last Friday to speak to 400 teachers, law enforcement personnel, social workers, politicians, church workers and community leaders. As a keynote speaker at the “State of the Child” forum, Cain shared her story of unimaginable childhood trauma leading to twenty years living on the streets as a drug addict, while being passed over and even betrayed by social systems charged to help people like her.


“Finally, about thirteen years ago, someone asked me, “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” said Cain in her presentation. That was the turning point that began the transformation of Cain into a survivor, later becoming a team leader for the National Center for Trauma-Informed Care, an advocate who speaks all over the world, featured guest on talk shows, and the subject of an award winning film, “Healing Neen.”

Keynote speaker Tonier Cain presents a real life picture of her transformed life as a survivor of childhood trauma.

Cain’s story was just one segment of the conference designed as the first step in Watauga becoming a “Trauma Informed County,” an approach being embraced across the country to inform and equip a community regarding lifelong health and social issues that can result from the untreated effects of adverse childhood experiences including abuse, abandonment, hunger and poverty, and exposure to substance abuse.


Several years ago, led by social worker Denise Presnell at Watauga County schools, multiple social agencies began working together to explore better ways to serve youth in the county. A planning committee decided to hold a State of the Child forum to educate and raise awareness of how childhood trauma affects the entire community. The High Country United Way stepped up to be the major sponsor of the event held last week.


“This idea was a slam dunk,” said Gary Childers, director of the High Country United Way. “Early childhood trauma is the root of many issues that our agencies deal with.”

Chad Seagle said that the Watauga County Department of Social Services is working with about one hundred children on any given day.

Watauga County Commissioner John Welch welcomed attendees on Friday, “We are all here today because we care about the children in our county. We must take the information we hear today and use it to help our children. Those of us in this room must commit to working together.”


“It’s like these kids in need are on an island, waiting to be rescued,” Welch continued. “There are lifeboats out there, but the boats are just not close enough.”


Dr. George Ake, licensed psychologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center, presented compelling data and information on the effects of trauma exposure and toxic stress in the brain development of children, and the impact into adulthood. While many in the audience were from agencies and professions that were well versed in these subjects, there were also many who were being exposed to these concepts for the first time.

Dr. George Ake from Duke University Medical Center explained the importance of recognizing and treating childhood trauma.

Scanning the full sanctuary t the Boone United Methodist Church venue, Ake noted, “The attendance today is an indication that Watauga is on its way to becoming a Trauma Informed Community. A trauma informed system is one where all parties recognize and respond to the impact of traumatic stress, including the children, the caregivers, and the service providers. Who are the service providers? All of us.”


Various representatives presented examples of real cases in the high country. Chad Slagle from the Department of Social Services presented a widespread picture of trauma in the High Country, revealing that on any given day, his department is evaluating or treating about one hundred children. Dr. Holli Sink of the Southmountain Children and Family Services said, “We have as much trauma in Boone as we see in the national statistics.”

Denise Presnell, social worker for Watauga County Schools and organizer of the State of the Child event, stands with Gary Childers with the High Country United Way, major sponsor of the event.

All forum attendees participated in action planning sessions to brainstorm on steps that could be taken to prevent and treat trauma utilizing resources from local agencies, schools, and members of the community. Using the findings and feedback from the State of the Child Forum, a Trauma-Informed Steering Committee will make recommendations for change. The first meeting of the Steering Committee is Tuesday, May 30, 11am-1pm at the BREMCO Community Conference Room in Boone. For more information, please contact Denise Presnell at presnelld@wataugaschools.org.

Dr. Murray Hawkinson from Daymark Recovery said that about 65% of their patients have experienced childhood trauma. “Our goal as a community should be to intervene as early as possible, as many times as possible, with as many informed people as possible.”


Agencies from Watauga and surrounding counties had information booths for conference attendees to learn more about resources available in the community. Todd Carter from the Hospitality House speaks with an attendee.


Agencies from Watauga and surrounding counties had information booths for conference attendees to learn more about resources available in the community. Crystal Kelly of the Children’s Council of Watauga County speaks with an attendee.


Stephen Paulos of Watauga County Parks and Rec explains how volunteers can get involved.