The Way We Do The Things We Do

By Derri Smith, Founder

It might seem too obvious to suggest, let alone write a whole blog about it, but the victim of systems of trauma, such as human trafficking, will find no healing in yet another system of trauma. What that re-traumatizing system looks like might not be so obvious.

Have you ever told your child to apologize, only to be met with a steely-eyed, gritted teeth, “I’m sorry”; or listened to a politician’s insincere “Mistakes were made?” Then you might imagine that the WAY we do things and the attitude with which we do them are as important, if not more important, than what we do. Never is that truer than in working with trauma survivors.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a trauma informed agency or system “recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.”

That statement does not refer so much to individual practices as to a culture. Culture must flow from the top and infiltrate every aspect of the workplace. This principle applies not only to an organization that focuses on trauma care, but to any agency seeking to provide some piece of that system of care.

Let’s look at three of the six pillars of a trauma informed agency and how this concept applies:

  1. Trustworthiness and Transparency. SAMSHA defines it thusly: “Organizational operations and decisions are conducted with transparency, with the goal of building and maintaining trust with clients and family members, among staff and others involved in the organization.” A lack of transparency leads to lack of trust. A breakdown of trust at any level has a ripple effect on every other level. Conversely, when trust and transparency are the norm, trauma survivors recognize that, and it frees them to trust, as well.

  2. Safety: Throughout the agency, there must be a sense of both physical and psychological safety. Physical safety is relatively straightforward: Think security cameras, alarms, locks, privacy, etc. Psychological safety is more complex. Strength based language is one component. To a client, it might sound like this: “Yes, you relapsed. But you stayed clean for sixty days! Wow, what helped you accomplished that? Can we use those tools to help you for the next sixty days?”

    For everyone associated with running an agency, pursuing a culture of encouragement, teamwork, giving credit where credit is due, open communication and support makes everyone feel safe. It means asking questions from a sincere desire to understand. It means clear feedback given not with a “gotcha” attitude but coming alongside to support and help. This sort of culture empowers everyone involved in an organization with the wherewithal to similarly empower clients. It clearly demonstrates the trauma informed values of the agency. Unless it starts at the top and infuses the organization, then there is no guarantee and sparse accountability if clients do not consistently receive trauma informed care.

  3. Collaboration and Mutuality: SAMSHA describes healthy dynamics between people of different “power” levels like this. “Partnering, and the leveling of power differences between staff and clients and among organizational staff, from clerical and housekeeping to professional staff and administrators, demonstrating that healing happens in relationships and in the meaningful sharing of power and decision making.” What is this “leveling of power differences?”

When we fight against trauma (human trafficking, rape, child abuse, intimate partner violence, etc.), we confront inequity of power. The perpetrator has power over the victim. Right versus wrong and fact versus fiction have no meaning—only who has power. How ludicrous it would be then for those with power in an organization to wield it without interest in facts or adherence to a mutually agreed standard. If anyone in the chain of command is free to act toward others as they please, without providing opportunity for dialog, examination of fact, appeal to common standards and recourse for grievance, then that person and the organization perpetuates the very system they say they are trying to defeat.

Trauma informed care and a power heavy, top-down structure are wholly incompatible. And no one will sense such a system and be repulsed by it as quickly as the already traumatized victim/client.

A truly trauma informed agency permeates every aspect of the work with the principles of trauma informed care—policies, physical environment, governance and administration, engagement of those served, the budget process, evaluation and more. Without these values consistently in practice, we can provide services all day, every day, yet scratch our heads as the best staff and clients leave in search of the very thing that heals trauma: Supportive, safe, caring, trusting relationships.