OP-ED: ‘Trauma-Informed Care’ is More Than a Mantra

Susan Broderick
Susan Broderick

For the past several years, researchers and practitioners around the country have been promoting “trauma-informed” projects and policies. The emergence of the label seems to date back to the findings of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, published back in 1997. While the phrase has caught on like wildfire, there appears to be little consistency as to what this actually means. For some skeptics, it seemed that “trauma-informed” was replacing “evidence-based” as the mantra to the masses – something that had to be mentioned in all grant applications in order to get funding. Admittedly, I was one of those skeptics.

Last week I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Robert Anda, one of the principal researchers of that study. After providing an overview of the study, he went on to explain the significance of the findings. Of particular importance, he explained, was that by better understanding the relationship between certain adverse childhood experiences and various negative life outcomes, there is a way to change course. “What is predictable is preventable.” What a powerful message.

Anda also spoke of the theory behind “trauma-informed” practices: “Instead of looking at what’s wrong with someone, we look at what happened to that person.” This makes perfect sense, even to a skeptic like me, because we can only truly change behavior when we understand what caused the behavior. He went on to emphasize that this does not mean we ignore personal responsibility. In fact, he stressed that accountability is still very important.

To my surprise, Anda’s presentation wasn’t at all what I expected. Instead of slides about excuses and blame, he had slides about the “Biology of Hope.” He went on to discuss the study’s finding and the importance of love and spirituality in overcoming adversity. In a justice system that is sometimes preoccupied with the negative side of things – like offending, risk factors and adversity – it was refreshing to hear about the power and resiliency of the human spirit.

Love and hope. Such small words; just four letters each, yet they capture the essence of the most transformative forces in human nature. Love is easy to define. Hope, although a bit more difficult, generally means more than just wanting something, but also believing it can happen or be true. They are such powerful concepts and forces, and yet they are not frequently emphasized or discussed in the work that we do.

Anda isn’t the only expert talking about the power of the human spirit. Harvard professor George Vaillant has written extensively about the transformative power of positive emotions. Love and hope are mentioned frequently in his work and he unabashedly writes about spirituality and it’s role in turning around lives.

For quite some time I have hesitated about writing about such topics, in fear that I would be labeled a “bleeding heart” by former colleagues in the justice field. Yet, after reading the work of Vaillant over the past two years and listening to Anda last week, I am truly inspired to throw caution to the wind. I think we have been so ingrained with “scientific rigor” and “data outcomes” that we forget about the things that really matter in life.

Anyone working in this field knows about adversity, trauma and the heartbreak that it produces. We have seen countless lives destroyed by violence, abuse and addiction. During my years as a child-abuse prosecutor, I saw and heard things that haunt me to this day. The most heartbreaking phone call I ever received was about a young boy who had been a witness on one of my cases, being charged as a juvenile offender. Coming from a violent, chaotic and dysfunctional background with no parental or other family support, I knew the odds were not in his favor.  From a very young age, this kid never stood a chance.

I have also worked with children and youth who exhibited tenacity and resilience in the face of extremely formidable odds. Very often, their lives were turned around because they were supported or encouraged by a powerful role model. Whether it was a teacher, a relative or even someone in the system, it was someone who cared enough about them to inspire them to get back on track; someone who gave them love and hope. I know we all have seen those kids and they are a driving force in why we do this work, day in and day out -- because they give us hope.

Love and hope. Now there’s a mantra I could live with.

Susan Broderick is an assistant research professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform 

5 thoughts on “OP-ED: ‘Trauma-Informed Care’ is More Than a Mantra”

  1. Wisconsin just initiated on-going [trauma-informed] primary care for about 6,000 Foster Children, in the past few days. Family Court Judges in some jurisdictions around the country are using “Trauma-Informed Checklists for Judges”. Some Washington state schools are using trauma-informed student disciplinary policies, …and the school drop-out rate has ebbed. Whole communities like Tarpon Springs, Florida and Kansas City are adopting trauma-informed service systems. In 2000, Vermont’s Legislature initiated hearings on trauma-informed programming in a number of state programs…

  2. I feel optimistic that leaders in Juvenile Justice are embracing the concept that youth need to be viewed holistically, and that interventions which focus on an ‘attitude adjustment’ approach could totally miss the core of the issues which led to the identified problematic behaviors. Understanding the concept of ‘what happened to you’ as an essential element in the process to determine needed services could truly impact future behaviors and change the trajectory of children’s lives. Respected voices which draw attention to the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences could fuel the changes absolutely necessary in Juvenile Justice Services. Thank you!

  3. an increase in trauma children growing up in single families are increasing due to a breakdown in two parent families, society will need to devote more resources to helping these children in the future.

  4. I recently wrote a book after 22 years in recovery “I Choose Life” about spiritual transformation and experiencing heaven on earth by Bee Godskiss Daley (available on Amazon). I talk about childhood trauma and how I have worked to heal and recover from what trauma did to me — I include pictures of me in the book as well as detailed information on my healing process, including the chakras (energy centers) in the human body. The long lasting effects from trauma are very real and I encourage anyone who wants to learn more about this to buy my book or request your local library to order a copy that you can check out.

  5. Finally, what sounds very simplistic is seen as a solution.
    Not giving up on the child.

    Maybe the problem has been that many so called professionals are not equipped to provide these things to all troubled children.

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