By Pegah Faed, DrPH, MPH Senior Program Officer, Health Systems First 5 LA
What is the impact of one stable and nurturing relationship? The children of SaintA and the families of Nia Imani Family Center in Milwaukee will tell you it can change the trajectory of a life. On Sunday, 60 Minutes’ Special Contributor Oprah Winfrey reported how trauma plays a role in child development and how a trauma-informed approach can help buffer the impact for children exposed.
Oprah shared the stories of two organizations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that have adopted a trauma-informed approach to their services. SaintA, once a Catholic orphanage, now places orphaned, abandoned, neglected and abused children in foster homes and coordinates their care. On any given day, SaintA looks after about 2,000 children who have all experienced trauma in their earliest years of life. Alisha Fox, a Milwaukee resident, who was diagnosed with PTSD after suffering a decade of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, expressed her appreciation for the approach. “I felt that somebody understood. That they knew where I was coming from…I felt seen. Felt heard.”
Trauma-informed care focuses on a person’s experiences before trying to correct the behavior. It’s about a paradigm shift from asking individuals, “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” As Tim Grove, Clinical Director for SaintA, tells Oprah, “It’s so subtle and yet so profound in terms of how kids experience an adult that approaches them from that angle. They feel safe.”
SaintA started to train their own staff on the trauma informed approach but quickly realized that this approach needed to be practiced by all of the professionals who interacted with the children they were serving including the teachers and police. It wasn’t enough to only have SaintA staff trained. Ten years later, they’ve trained 50,000 individuals in this approach.
“It’s so subtle and yet so profound in terms of how kids experience an adult that approaches them from that angle. They feel safe.” -Tim Grove
One of those individuals is Belinda Pittman-McGee, who runs Nia Imani Family Center providing transitional housing for women and their children experiencing homelessness. The segment echoed the findings of First 5 LA’s recent report linking the experience of homelessness and childhood trauma, that the chaos of homelessness is itself a traumatic experience.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every eight children suffers enough trauma to cause lasting damage. Exposure to early childhood adversity can make individuals more susceptible to a number of poorer outcomes such as physical and mental health issues, learning and behavior issues, lower academic performance, and shorter overall life expectancy. Dr. Bruce Perry, a leading expert on childhood trauma, shares how the sensitive stage of brain development early in childhood makes the youngest highly vulnerable to chaos, threat, inconsistency, unpredictability, and violence, etc.
But what sets apart those who’ve experienced traumatic childhoods and overcome from those who could not, boils down to relationships. Oprah succinctly describes how relationships are the turning point. “At some point in your life there was a relationship, or a helping hand, or some kind of healing process that helped you get where you are,” Pittman-McGee provides that support for the women and children of the Imani Family Center.
But it’s not only about the relationships between individuals, it’s about the communities and service delivery systems that those relationships exist within. It’s about a fundamental shift in societal norms about how our policies and systems create an environment that prevents exposure to trauma and is prepared to address and buffer it in the circumstances when it occurs.
This is why First 5 LA, in partnership with a number of county-wide public and private partners, has committed to infusing a trauma-informed approach in Los Angeles County’s child and family serving systems. In addition to helping address the trauma of individuals being served, a trauma-informed approach provides support for the people in the workforce who are often exposed to trauma and experience higher rates of burnout and poor work satisfaction.
We can’t solve the cycles of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, incarceration, or abuse without addressing trauma. At the foundation of a trauma-informed approach is love. It is about how individuals feel responded to, valued, trusted, and loved by others and the environment around them. As I reflect on last night’s segment, I’m reminded of the lyrics from over half a century ago when the Beatles sang, “there’s nothing you can do that can’t be done…nothing you can save that can’t be save, nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time…all you need is love.”
For more information on Oprah Winfrey’s segment on 60 Minutes, visit https://www.cbsnews.com/news/oprah-winfrey-treating-childhood-trauma/
For more information on First 5 LA’s strategy on trauma informed systems, visit /article/trauma-informed-systems-change/