Children Now Insider: Trauma-Informed Care

All children should have access to the supports they need to heal and thrive

By Susanna Kniffen and Lishaun Francis

December 4, 2019

Children Now® Insider: Stories, News, And Insights On Children’s Advocacy

For more information on our blog, contact Adrienne Bell at abell@childrennow.org

All parents want their children to grow up healthy, happy and ready to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, not all children have the supports and services they need to thrive, and this is especially true for children who have experienced trauma. In California, children birth to age five made up nearly half (47 percent) of all substantiated cases of child abuse/neglect in 2015, an increase of seven percent from 1998.

Frequent and prolonged abuse or neglect can disrupt a child’s development and increase the risk for stress-related disease well into adulthood. This is why it’s so important to provide timely and specialized care to young children that have experienced or are experiencing trauma. To learn more about fostering healthy brain development, read this blog post.

What is trauma? And how does it affect children?

Trauma is described as an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening, and that has lasting adverse effects on a person’s ability to function, as well as his or her mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.

A particular subset of traumatic experiences that children experience are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – events that include experiencing or witnessing violence and physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse, growing up in extreme poverty, or in unstable living conditions, and facing systemic discrimination – and have been linked to chronic illness, decreased life expectancy and mental health challenges, among other long-term effects.

For children growing up in the foster care system, experiences of trauma can be related to abuse, neglect and disrupted relationships, including being removed from their homes and families. This trauma can lead to long-term effects on kids’ physical, social, and emotional well-being that may persist into adulthood, and can also cause students in foster care to struggle to stay on track in school.

To learn more about ACEs, childhood trauma, and the importance of early screenings, read this policy brief.

What is trauma-informed care? Why is it important?

Trauma-informed care is an organizational structure and treatment framework that involves understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of trauma. Trauma-informed care also emphasizes physical, psychological and emotional safety for both children and families and providers, and helps survivors rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

Trauma-informed care acknowledges and recognizes that a child has experienced trauma. It also makes the critical distinction between focusing on what happened to the child, rather than suggesting there is something wrong with him or her.

By taking a trauma-informed approach, caregivers, social workers, child care providers, and doctors, among others, can meet the unique needs of children involved with the child welfare system. This includes understanding how a child’s history and previous experiences affect his or her current behavior and then identifying what the child may need in order to cope and eventually heal.

Lastly, in addition to creating a physically safe environment in which children can heal, organizations must also confront implicit bias. Like the broader population, healthcare professionals possess biased thoughts and feelings that are “implicit,” in that they show an automatic, unconscious preference, or aversion to, a specific group of people. Unfortunately, the result of implicit bias is that some trauma survivors may receive a lower level of care because of their race, gender, or other characteristic. By confronting issues of implicit bias during trauma-informed training, the healthcare field can ensure staff is treating all patients fairly.

To learn more, visit the Trauma Informed Care Project.

What are we doing to help children who have experienced trauma?

At Children Now, we work to ensure that all children, especially those who are most vulnerable, have access to trauma-informed supports and services and that systems are trauma-informed, including trauma screenings in pediatric settings, which ensures children are screened for ACEs and medical care is provided in the context of a child’s experiences to better meet their physical and emotional needs.

For children in the foster care system, there are several specific programs we are supporting:

  • The Emergency Child Care Bridge Program for Foster Children, which incorporates trauma-informed care training for child care providers so they can better meet the needs of children who have experienced abuse and neglect;
  • The Family Urgent Response System, which ensures caregivers and children can access immediate trauma-informed support during moments of instability or crisis; and
  • Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), currently being implemented by the state, to ensure all children in foster care are raised in loving homes rather than institutions in order to help them heal from the trauma they have experienced.

What else needs to be done?

A lot!

We need to identify trauma early and ensure timely referrals for needed services or supports to promote healing before a child experiences additional trauma and suffers more; train and support the child-serving workforce to prevent secondary trauma and respond to children and families in a trauma-informed way; continue to raise awareness about the impact of placement changes and disrupted relationships within the foster care system (and strive for placement stability for children); and increase collaboration – like the California Department of Social Services’ Integrated Core Practice Model, which focuses on the shared values, core components, and standards of practice expected from providers and agencies serving children, youth, and families – across child-serving agencies in order to better meet the needs of children and their caregivers.

In a perfect California, children will not experience abuse or neglect. Children who experience trauma should have access to the trauma-informed care they need to heal and thrive. This is especially critical for children in the foster care system, who should be placed in nurturing family homes and have access to services and supports that promote their healthy development and help them have enduring relationships.