Juvenile justice professionals are evolving to better understand the impact of trauma on youth. In 2012 the U.S. Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence called for organizations to provide trauma-informed care and develop trauma-informed policies.
Since 2013 in Texas, all juvenile supervision officers receive state-mandated trauma-informed care training. The six-hour training provides critical components that go beyond traditional verbal de-escalation techniques many agencies used previously to respond to youth with escalating, trauma-based behaviors.
- The impact of trauma on childhood development;
- The relationship between trauma and behavioral problems, including delinquency;
- How to recognize the effects of trauma in a youth’s behavior;
- How to respond appropriately to a traumatized youth’s reactions; and
- How to manage stress caused by working with a traumatized population (sometimes referred to as vicarious trauma).
Additionally, the statute requires that nine essential elements of trauma-informed care be included in the curriculum of any training. These are:
- Maximize the child’s sense of safety.
- Assist children in reducing overwhelming emotion.
- Help children make new meaning of their trauma history and current experiences.
- Address the impact of trauma and subsequent changes in the child’s behavior, development and relationships.
- Coordinate services with other agencies.
- Utilize comprehensive assessment of the child’s trauma experiences and their impact on the child’s development and behavior to guide services.
- Support and promote positive and stable relationships in the life of the child.
- Provide support and guidance to the child’s family and caregivers.
- Manage professional and personal stress.
Each of these topics and elements are important pieces of becoming trauma-informed, but trauma-informed does not necessarily translate to implementing and sustaining trauma-informed care. Being informed is an important step in the process, but not the end step. The end step is implementing trauma care in a consistent and sustained way.
In Texas and other juvenile justice systems there is great awareness how juvenile justice work can be traumatic for employees, causing vicarious trauma, which in an important recognition. Policies developed address how to support employees when they are affected by vicarious trauma. However, employee resilience and organizational resilience is more than just being aware of vicarious trauma.
Trauma care of youth, those who are justice-involved and those who are not, begins first with good employee self-care, which is intertwined with good team care.
Trauma-informed organizations must be “flat” organizations in relation to self-care and team care. If ⅔ of the adult population has at least one Adverse Childhood Experience, then it is likely every team of employees includes team members who have had an Adverse Childhood Experience. The Adverse Childhood Experience study (ACEs) only looked at childhood trauma. There are traumas that can occur beyond childhood.
It is likely 3/3 of the adult population in the United States has experienced some sort of trauma in their lifetime as a child or an adult. These traumas, as shown by the ACEs study, impact physical and behavioral health. Trauma can cause a person to develop triggers. “A trigger is a stimulus that sets off a memory of a trauma or a specific portion of a traumatic experience,” a government study says.
Staff can be triggered by youth, who as a matter of survival (the fight part of flight or fight), have learned how to push people’s buttons. Without a well thought out and practiced self-care plan, a triggered staff person can lead to nontrauma-informed care.
Self-care must be a daily practice, just like other daily routines. For example, people brush their teeth daily because it prevents future tooth decay, and it is a cultural expectation to have good-smelling breath. Self-care in regard to mental health care should be thought of the same way. Self-care is important to prevent future mental health or toxic stress impacts, and it should be a cultural expectation.
Self-care must be expected, modeled and implemented at all levels, because supervisory staff too can experience triggers that can lead to a stressed interaction with an employee. Everyone in an organization is equal in regard to the impact of trauma. For self-care to work, it must be supported by team care. Self-care plans are difficult to maintain without the support of the entire team. This team care plan must be reached through careful planning, conversation and consensus. Implementing any change in an organization can be challenging. However, through the use of coaching, mentoring and modeling there is a greater chance of success.
So trauma-informed is a beginning for an organization and its team. But to best serve youth the trauma-informed care must extend to every single member of the organization in the form of self-care and care for the entire team. Without sustained, implemented trauma care that includes care for all three, trauma-informed care will remain just informed, not implemented.
Cathy Anthofer-Fialon is chief executive officer and founder of Good Harbor Institute, which orchestrates trauma care within organizations. It works with leaders and educators in business, K-12, higher education, human service organizations and government organizations to maximize human potential and enhance service.