Blueprint: Building a Trauma Informed Child Welfare System

The time has come to transform our child welfare system into one that is trauma-informed and trauma-responsive. In a trauma-informed and trauma-responsive system, each organization and individual serving children and families recognizes and appreciates the impact trauma has on brain development, personal resilience, and family and individual recovery.

The concept of trauma and the accompanying research have shifted the paradigm about the way in which systems, organizations, professionals, and caregivers approach and serve children, youth, young adults, and families who experience the child welfare system. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as the result of “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or lifethreatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”1 When trauma is experienced during childhood, the ripple effect can be both swift and substantial. Replicated studies on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) demonstrate that childhood stress is linked to poor health outcomes, including obesity, diabetes, depression, heart disease, cancer, and stroke as well as alcohol and drug abuse, low graduation rates, and poor employment outcomes.2 Undoubtedly, children and youth who experience abuse or neglect or interact with the child welfare system are vulnerable to trauma and our systems must respond to the needs of children and families through a trauma-informed lens. In doing so, serving children and families moves beyond responding to behaviors to promoting healing.

Re-traumatization refers to the process of re-experiencing traumatic stress

Secondary Trauma describes trauma-related stress reactions and symptoms resulting from exposure to another individual’s traumatic experience. (Also referred to as “compassion fatigue” or “vicarious trauma.”)

Leaders of child welfare organizations must create a culture of trauma-informed care in policy, practice, training, and tools for all individuals who engage with children, youth, young adults, and families while they are involved in the child welfare system. This includes a recognition that all children, youth, young adults, and families entering the child welfare system have experienced trauma and may continue to experience trauma. Additionally, appropriate trauma training must be required of any person who directly serves or advocates for children, youth, young adults, and families involved in the child welfare system.

Equally critical is ensuring that caregivers and professionals understand how their own life
experiences will affect how they respond to trauma-related behaviors. Training must include information
on how trauma may disproportionately impact diverse populations. Organizations should also promote
the values of youth and family voice, self-advocacy, and meaningful partnerships between youth and
adults in all aspects of the organization’s mission and work.

Trauma-informed and trauma-responsive interventions will be data-driven, effective, and sustainable.

Being trauma-informed means asking, “What happened to you?” instead of asking “What is wrong with you?” This shift must occur in every part of the child welfare system ranging from statewide policies to courtroom practices to the day-to-day care of children.

Trauma-informed care is evolving across multiple fields that serve children and families.
Therefore, the strategies proposed are not overly prescriptive to allow for individualization
and innovation. There are nonetheless central concepts that are key to accomplishing
the culture shift Texas seeks to support a trauma-informed and trauma-responsive child
welfare system. To that end, children, youth, young adults, and families should experience
an environment that promotes felt safety, relational connectedness, stability, and longterm well-being.

Shifting the culture of the child welfare system to one that is trauma-informed
requires an acknowledgement that the children, youth, young adults, and families engaged
with the child welfare system have almost certainly experienced trauma. Also, the potential
for experiencing trauma within the child welfare system will be lessened if the system is
trauma-informed. Becoming trauma-informed means viewing children and families through a
trauma lens and offering responses that avoid traumatization and re-traumatization as well as
developing pathways to recover from trauma. Acknowledgement of traumatic experiences must
be accompanied with concrete changes to how individuals, organizations, and the overall system
interact with children and families.

Healing the whole family can create opportunities for connection, relationships, reunification, and prevention of future maltreatment. Trauma screenings for adults and family members involved in the child’s life can provide great insight into the most relevant and beneficial services for the family.

Children and youth who have experienced severe or complex trauma may exhibit high-risk behaviors, however, seclusion and restraint in response to these behaviors may cause additional trauma or re-traumatization. The goal for the Texas child welfare system and other child-serving systems should be to reduce the use of seclusion and restraint practices as much as practicable.

To serve traumatized children and families effectively, child and family-serving systems need to understand trauma and its implications for the health and well-being of the families being served.2

Collaboration can be a difficult process. Challenges include different perspectives across disciplines of what trauma is and how it affects children and families, conflicting goals or priorities, funding constraints, and policies and practices that inhibit collaboration.25 Overcoming these potential barriers and fostering cross-system relationships through a common trauma-informed framework will bolster each system’s ability to respond to children and families in crisis.

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