How can we relate to children impacted by trauma?
The manifestation of trauma in adolescence occurs in a multitude of ways and there isn’t a single response to the expression of trauma. Identifying root causes can be difficult, with trauma hidden and experienced in complex ways, from obvious incidents such as violence and loss, through to long term neglect, structural and institutionalised trauma. The first step towards dealing with trauma, however, is universal – building healthy relationships and recognising what is going on with individuals to facilitate recovery and building resilience.
Identifying, assessing and mitigating the impact of child trauma was the theme of an event CACI hosted recently. At the heart of the panel conversation was how to relate to those young people who come into contact with youth offending services across the UK. How can youth justice workers, social workers and teachers get a joined up picture of each young person to create an understanding of their story to then relate to them?
“We all experience trauma and this is a fundamental part of our response to it,” says CACI Children & Young Person’s Services strategic director, Marc Radley. “Youth offending teams are the only ones able to complete a picture of the end results (in youth) and the stories that lead up to these.”
Is childhood trauma a universal ingredient in persistent youth offending? “We need to assume that all children in the criminal justice system have suffered trauma,” adds Dr. Alex Chard, director at YCTS. “We need to look back at each person’s story and relate to it. Early childhood abuse, especially something as corrosive as neglect, is a vital step in establishing relationships with these young people. Some factors often get missed, such as structural abuse, aspects such as poverty and the impact this has on a child, and social abuse, aspects such as discrimination.”
Joining the dots to paint a clear picture of each child’s experience is difficult. Information is often simplified, siloed and important context lost across the different agency process and practices that interact with a young person, from schools to social workers and youth offending teams.
“Many children have deep issues from the trauma they’ve experienced, and trauma is different for every child,” explains Marius Frank, strategic lead for E-learning development and youth justice at Achievement for All. “There’s not single solution or picture. Trauma exists in a spectrum, manifesting itself differently in each individual. We are seeing some amazing work engaging with young people, though. Moving away from a punishment first outlook to one of understanding is a step in the right direction. We need to continue moving to trauma informed practice from trauma awareness.”
Putting the trauma front and centre of the response to youth offending will enable youth offending teams to better understand the individual they are dealing with. “Research on family and that sense of belonging is crucial,” adds Sonia Blandford, CEO of Achievement for All. “How can we create that feeling of connection in the young person?”
It is often the case that trauma affected young people have experienced a continual carousel of rejection, which results in a deep mistrust of adults and, therefore, present very challenging behaviour seen in youth offending teams as they go about their work. “This is the compound impact of multiple trauma points,” says Shaun Brown, programme director at The Difference. “There are a broad range of institutional experiences in response to this.”
Finding a route to engaging with young people who have experienced complex trauma is incredibly challenging, but it is possible. By working to get a holistic view of each young person it is possible to piece together story and begin to understand how they got to where they are. Understanding leads to positive relationships with workers to reduce offending. Further, when these stories are made visible via the right structured qualitative and quantitative recording and reporting, whole services gain insight and learning. This is where youth offending services create value and provide vital information about where and how to target resources and monitor future impact.
There are signs that local systems are moving in the right direction and youth offending service partnerships are at the forefront of this. They are building local knowledge, experience and understanding of the impact that trauma is having in young people’s lives. Bridging that experience into other agencies and organisations involved can restore healthy relationships with these young people and protect future generations, but only if this effort is continually monitored.