‘Trauma-Informed Care’ is More Than a Mantra

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Susan BroderickFor 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