Trauma-Informed Approaches in the Child Welfare System

Screen Shot 2021 12 15 at 1.35.45 PMBy Alix Mammina, Communications Specialist at the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing

Children and the adults who care for them deserve services that address the underlying causes of trauma and build the skills needed to support their health and wellbeing. At the Institute, we’re helping transform the child welfare system by taking trauma-informed approaches in all the work we do. 

From the trauma-informed trainings we host for practitioners to the sexuality education curricula we design for youth, our projects provide tools for preventing harm in the child welfare system. We’ve taken a look at some of our most recent projects to share how our team works with researchers, practitioners, and families to put trauma-informed principles into practice across Texas.

The Child Welfare Academy

Creating a stronger and more inclusive child welfare system starts with shifting the perspective of those on the front line. Through the Child Welfare Academy at the Texas Permanency Outcomes Project, we’re planning to help professionals working across the system embed a trauma-informed lens in their practice.

Launching in early 2022, the Child Welfare Academy offers certificate tracks and courses designed to help child welfare practitioners understand the lived experiences of the children and families they work with and confront the roots of disparities in the system. While developing the Academy, Curriculum & Training Specialist Cassandra Mendoza focused on breaking down the impact of trauma and trauma-informed strategies for practitioners to use. “Ultimately, what we want to teach is how to be more intentional about considering a person’s trauma history and having helping professionals understand that in front of you, you might see a bad parent, but really they’re not bad parents,” Cassandra said. “They’re just parents that need support.”

In the foundational courses offered through the Academy, case scenarios are used to help practitioners visualize the reality of a family living with complex trauma histories. Each scenario prompts professionals to consider how their own biases may affect their work with families, while equipping them with tools for empathizing with and listening to clients. “Throughout the trainings and the courses, we want to bring people’s lived experiences and give the learner the perspective of the families,” Cassandra said. “With that, we’re acknowledging their past traumas and we’re acknowledging that some of these families have been affected not just by the child welfare system but also by other systems.”

One foundational course covers multigenerational trauma and the disparities plaguing the child welfare system. The course introduces participants to a case scenario involving a parent with system-involved children and a helping professional working on the case. After examining different types of trauma—including childhood, collective, and race-based trauma—and their long-term effects, the course invites participants to consider how the parent’s trauma experiences might influence her thoughts and behavior. By providing participants with actionable strategies that build resilience and healing, the course helps them learn how to respond with empathy and compassion.

 “The idea of trauma-informed approaches is saying we recognize that trauma is real and can be reinforced by these systems, and recognizing that it’s not just an individual experience,” Cassandra said. “Trauma exists everywhere with our families, and we have a responsibility to the families we work with to not retraumatize them.”

Texas Foster Youth Health Initiative

Youth in foster care face increased risks for negative sexual health outcomes and often miss out on key opportunities to learn about healthy relationships and sexuality. The Texas Foster Youth Health Initiative (TFYHI), one of our new statewide projects, involves collaboration with practitioners, caregivers, and young adults across the state to make sure youth in care receive trauma-informed sexual health education. 

Over the past two years, the TFYHI team has adapted existing interventions and developed new ones using SAMHSA’s six guiding principles to trauma-informed approaches. Two of these interventions, Brave Conversations and the UN|HUSHED Introduction to Sexuality Education for Child Welfare Professionals, teach caregivers and professionals how to engage youth in discussions about sexual health and healthy relationships. Both trainings break down how to apply trauma-informed principles when leading conversations about sex and relationships, including by being open and transparent and creating safe spaces for youth. 

Brave Conversations and UN|HUSHED also lay the groundwork for caregivers and practitioners to understand how trauma impacts youth as they develop into adulthood and throughout their lifetime. As the project manager of TFYHI, Sharon Hoefer collaborated with statewide partners to make these concepts more accessible. “Often the ways that trauma shows up in youth in care have been interpreted as behavioral problems, or something to react against with punitive measures,” Sharon said. “We hope to help people understand what those behaviors are or where they might be coming from so that we can move into responding proactively, rather than reactively.”

The interventions for caregivers and professionals recognize that topics like sexual health and relationships may be connected to past trauma experienced by youth. Each intervention stresses that practicing a trauma-informed approach does not require knowing the details of a youth’s trauma history. Instead, the interventions focus on helping adults better understand how to support youth in ways that avoid reactivating trauma.

Similar to the Child Welfare Academy’s curricula, interventions like Brave Conversations also emphasize the importance of considering people’s choices and behaviors within the context of their lived experience. “We as caregivers or professionals are not the experts on young people’s lives, and so even if they are making decisions that don’t make sense to us, we need to be able to step back and come from a place of humility and support and meeting that young person where they are,” Sharon said. 

Family Relational Therapy Evaluation

As research on the lifetime impact of trauma has grown, so has the need for evidence-based interventions that address those impacts. For the past two years, we’ve received funding from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation to evaluate Family Relational Therapy (FRT), a family-based intervention developed by the Center for Child Protection. Tailored specifically for families whose children have entered or are at risk of entering foster care, the intervention provides caregivers with strategies to mitigate the risk of child abuse and increase family stability. 

“There are many interventions that call themselves trauma-informed, but we don’t have a strong sense of what exactly that means,” said TXICFW Assistant Director Dr. Beth Gerlach, who co-led the program evaluation. “By working on this program evaluation, we’ve been able to identify not only what this program means by trauma-informed but also whether they’re achieving the anticipated impact through the intervention.”

Over the course of 9 to 12 months, FRT therapists work one-on-one with caregivers and their children to enhance social support systems and improve family dynamics. Therapists use a combination of psychoeducation and relational-based activities to help caregivers understand trauma, build empathy, and strengthen their parenting practices. “One of the key pieces of Family Relational Therapy is the trauma-informed focus on helping families develop stronger networks with friends, extended family, and schools, to help support families even at times when they’re not receiving direct services,” Dr. Gerlach said.

The evaluation itself took a trauma-informed approach by considering multiple perspectives. In addition to formal screening and assessment tools, the research team gathered information from family and staff members that had participated in the program. By including participants’ impressions of the impact of the intervention, the evaluation provided a more comprehensive view of the program’s effectiveness.

The evaluation, set for release in early 2022, showed promising results for helping caregivers create strong support networks and a nurturing environment for children. Caregivers gained knowledge about child development and strategies for managing stress, as well as tools for raising children with complex trauma histories while coping with their own childhood trauma.

“In social work, we’ve known intuitively for a long time that people who’ve had difficult experiences in childhood have the potential for some increased vulnerabilities and risk factors,” Dr. Gerlach said. “But the last 10 years or so has seen a renewed understanding across disciplines for the impacts that trauma can have on physical and mental wellbeing over the lifetime. That becomes something that we try to be mindful of in all of our interventions, recognizing that it’s important to focus on helping caregivers provide a more protective path for their children.”