First Lady Susan Hutchinson Wants to Help Children with Trauma

First lady of Arkansas, Susan Hutchinson.
First lady of Arkansas, Susan Hutchinson.Photo courtesy of the Governors office.

When the first lady of Arkansas, Susan Hutchinson, was a child, her family experienced a disturbing occurrence on a Sunday afternoon in their Atlanta, Georgia home.

Susan’s aunt, her mother’s sister, placed a frantic call for help using a neighbor’s telephone. Susan sensed her parents’ concern as they loaded the family into the car and quickly drove to the aunt’s neighborhood. She overheard her parents talking about the aunt’s husband becoming violent; guns and shooting were mentioned, and Susan also worried about her cousin, an only child a few years older.

“I thought I was going to find my Aunt Grace dead, because her husband had discharged a gun and pulled the landline phone out of the wall,” she says. “He was the meanest man I’ve ever met; he was violent toward my aunt even when she was pregnant. I may have been 6 years old, so it was very impressive.”

Susan’s aunt and cousin came to live with the family for several months. As Susan observed them and their grief, she developed an immense sympathy for the problems of others and the traumas they may confront.

“I think that was the quietest, most stable time my cousin had ever experienced,” she said. “I stayed close to her for a long time, and she was like a sister, but she was jittery and easily upset. I learned later that the brain remembers trauma, especially chronic abuse. The body remembers. The body creates chemical markers in response to chronic emotional and traumatic events; these compounds will then attach to your genetic material.”

These markers can potentially cause impulsive behaviors later in life and affect one’s attention, learning, response to stress and emotions.

“Some of the myths about children who are exposed to violence are that they won’t remember, or that they’re resilient, or they will grow out of it. All of those are lies,” she says. “These children will need help, specific counseling and care to overcome. Even when a child is not yet vocal, the brain records those injuries and that trauma and that emotion.”

In Arkansas, 22% of people live in poverty.

When her husband took office almost eight years ago, Susan focused on endeavors to protect children who have experienced trauma, including serving on the state board of Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas.

Her husband governs a state where 22 percent of children live in poverty; the incarceration rate is within the country’s top five; substance abuse is on the rise, and almost 7,000 children enter the foster care system each year.

She insists that the youngest of children be treated tenderly and intentionally, as childhood years set the stage for the quality of adult relationships, health and economic prosperity.

“There is a small window for bonding from human to human, and if you don’t allow the babies to bond while that window is open, the window will close and they won’t bond; they won’t bond with anybody at any age. It’s like they don’t recognize fellow human beings as human beings, that they can hurt like they hurt, love like they love, dream like they dream. It’s very important,” she says.

There is a small window for bonding from human to human, and if you don’t allow the babies to bond while that window is open, the window will close and they won’t bond; they won’t bond with anybody at any age.
Susan Hutchinson

Particularly when foster care is needed, she demands the least amount of disruption and scrupulous attention to situations that could be perceived as threatening or traumatic to the children.

“The child’s safety and nurturing and emotional and neurological development is a priority. We need to recruit more foster parents. We need to get back to what families really mean. It’s the greenhouse that we’re to be born into, that protects us from the harsh elements of life,” she says. “Children need stability and regularity. Children have to get a sense of the world in stages. They need time to grow and for their brains to mature, for their thinking processes to mature. Let them have normalcy. Let them have time. Let them have that greenhouse effect where they’re nurtured, they’re loved, they’re guided, they’re taught the basics of life and right from wrong.

“I tell people to pray for our DHS agents and for our police officers; I understand that the most dangerous call a police officer can respond to can be domestic violence. We need to emphasize training for police officers in how to handle these situations so they’re not harmed, so they can de-escalate situations and go home to their families. We need more trauma-response training. Medical personnel at hospitals need to understand how to recognize signs of sex trafficking. Hotel employees need to recognize sex trafficking, and to care and to call law enforcement.”

Each Year, about 7,000 children are in foster care.

Susan is also sensitive to the plight of the incarcerated and calls upon society to constructively use prison time to offer mentoring and programs that are enriching.

“Have we prepared them for leaving? And not just six weeks before. What have we been doing all along? Whether they’ve been there for three years or five years or a hundred years, are we doing things to help them be the best they can possibly be?”

A high percentage of those in prison were also in foster care as children, she points out.

“If we don’t have a safe community, we can’t build on what we have. They need consensual programs on the outside where mentors come alongside them and help them navigate this strange world with all its complications that they’ve come back into. I think if we can be more effective with that, we can see a lessening percentage of our population that needs to be incarcerated.”

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

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