Creating a Trauma-informed Culture

Culturati Team
Jun 6 · 4 min read

By John Jeanetta, CEO, Heartland Family Service, Omaha, Nebraska


In the early 1990s, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study was implemented to determine the impact of early childhood trauma on adult health and quality of life. Eighty four percent of our clients and 73 percent of Heartland Family Service’s staff have experienced at one or more categories of ACEs; our culture must be built upon shared values that promote physical and emotional safety.

For that reason, ten years ago we adopted a research-based model for our organizational culture — Creating Cultures of Trauma-informed Care — and committed to upholding values of safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment.

Unresolved traumas fuel the presenting problems that bring our clients into care. To be successful in these efforts, for the past ten years we have been working tirelessly to create a trauma-informed culture.

Understanding childhood trauma is always an abuse of power; we strive to give power back to our clients and our employees. To truly create a culture that is trauma-informed, we understand that whatever we do for our clients to support their healing, we must also do for our employees.

Initially, our efforts focused on creating trauma-informed care structures. We created a steering committee comprised of employees across the organization. We organized program area workgroups. And we created and implemented plans to enhance strengths, address weaknesses and leverage opportunities. While some progress was achieved, there appeared to be a persistent gap between our understanding of our values and how our behaviors reflect those values. So, we refocused on making our values more specific through policy revisions, job descriptions, procedures and explicit expected behaviors.

For the last three years, our trauma-informed workgroups and steering committee have rewritten every policy to be trauma-informed.

Job descriptions require that each employee creates, maintains and shares, as appropriate, a dynamic self-care plan. Based on employee input, 28 specific behaviors were identified to support our core values and every day, every team checks in or checks out by reflecting on the behavior of the day. It is through this constant sharing and storytelling that we expect to see the behaviors begin to align more closely to the values.

Recently, we joined a community initiative to bring the practice of mindfulness to our employees and, eventually, our clients. At several of our locations you’ll now find regular mindfulness sits. Soon, yoga will be added and therapeutic drumming. We also created and implemented a seven-session training program to help our employees increase their skills of emotional self-regulation and collaboration focusing on the foundational skills we teach our clients through Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

Lastly, we increased attention on supervisor training and helping our managers redefine their role as coaches. As an accredited organization, our funding often hinges on excellent outcomes. Over time, our supervision structure has focused significantly on accountability. While we know accountability builds engagement, accountability without coaching leads to a lack of safety, trustworthiness, empowerment and a willingness to collaborate. Essentially, it is the antithesis of our values and the culture we must create if we are to be successful in helping our clients find and sustain safety, self-sufficiency and wellbeing.

Heartland Family Service, a non-profit organization, founded in 1875, serves 50,000 people annually from 20 locations in eastern Nebraska and southwestern Iowa, the agency employs 570 people with a $35 million annual budget. With a mission of strengthening individuals and families, we provide various programs that address the following issues: substance use, domestic violence/sexual assault, sex trafficking, early childhood development, homelessness, juvenile delinquency, mental health, and poverty.

To fulfill our mission, we work to increase the safety, self-sufficiency and wellbeing of the people we serve by offering comprehensive programming that addresses the complex needs of our clientele. Encompassing all of this work, is an understanding that most of the people we serve, as well as our employees, have experienced early childhood trauma. Woven throughout our work, are strategies and interventions to identify and treat these underlying traumas.


John Jeanetta

John H. Jeanetta was appointed president and CEO of Heartland Family Service in 2009. Under his leadership, the 144-year-old agency has grown tremendously, with operating revenue up by 112 percent, program growth of 77 percent and several large capital projects recently completed. The most significant of these projects has been the $32 million North Omaha Intergenerational Campus, a collaborative effort of Heartland Family Service and Holy Name Housing Corporation. This strategic growth has allowed the agency to increase the impact of its 50 multi-faceted human service programs, serving 50,000 people annually from 20 locations in east central Nebraska and southwest Iowa, and deliver on its mission of strengthening families and our community.

John holds a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln/Gallup University, a Master of Science in Social Work degree from Columbia University in the City of New York, and a master’s specialization certification in gerontology from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

He currently sits on several boards including: the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation Board of Advisors, the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands, and PromiseShip. John is also a trustee of the Business Ethics Alliance.

Culturati: Magazine

Culture powers performance

Culturati Team

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Culturati is a community of CEOs, entrepreneurs, investors and other c-suite leaders who practice & study culture building and share our play books.

Culturati: Magazine

Culture powers performance

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