Identifying, assessing & mitigating the impact of child trauma
The concept of child trauma is a fluid one. There are the obvious examples that we can think of, those that social services and professionals deal with on a day-to-basis. Then there are the more intangible experiences of trauma, such as long-term neglect, structural and institutional trauma. The responses to behaviour by the professionals involved, be they teachers, youth offending teams or care workers, play a crucial role in the outcomes of these children. How can we work with conflict and challenge to join often disparate parts of our responses to create a roadmap to improved outcomes for all children?
CACI recently hosted an event exploring this topic. We were joined by a panel of domain experts: Alex Chard, director at YCTS; Shaun Brown, programme director at The Difference; Sonia Blandford, CEO at Achievement for All and; Marius Frank, strategic lead for E-learning development and youth justice at Achievement for All. The event was hosted by our Children & Young Person’s strategic director, Marc Radley.
How can we relate to children who have suffered lifetime trauma who find it hard to recover and build resilience?
“Understanding the history of these children is the responsibility of everyone concerned with their story,” says Alex. “We have to understand every child in youth offending services. At the moment we tend to ‘snapshot’ risk and tend to the most recent events. We need to look back further. We also need to assume that all children in the criminal justice system have suffered trauma. Gaining an understanding of early childhood abuse, especially something as corrosive as neglect, is a vital step in establishing relationships with these young people and building up their resilience.”
In what way do our system responses help or hinder recovery?
This was identified as an area for improvement by our panel. “There are so many layers in the systems that we operate and we tend to focus on what we know and understand,” explains Sonia. “These need to be an overarching view of every child; instead we have simplified information in silos. System responses, therefore, are a hindrance and can even exacerbate the difficulties for the child. We need to find ways to share our knowledge across the board and in order to learn and improve, we need to eliminate unhelpful routes and make things simple. At the moment there are too many layers.”
“Chronology and understanding of vulnerable children is hindered by misplaced fear of protecting privacy,” says Shaun. “Where access to past information is restricted, we can only see current information and there is no context. Understanding gets lost and many young people are left continually restarting their journeys.”
There is also the educational aspect in all of this, away from youth justice teams. “Assessment has failure built into it and this is a form of institutional trauma,” explains Sonia. “A lot of these children are always failing exams and tests and being told they’re bottom of the pile.”
“For some 14- and 15-year olds the first time they are diagnosed with severe educational disabilities is at screening by a youth offending team,” says Marius. “Why? Because of exclusions. This is driven by high stakes assessments and a results driven system.”
How do we enable fair access to supportive environments and relationships?
“We need to look at families and intergenerational trauma,” says Alex. “We gain a different level of empathy when we come to understand a child’s history. For this, we need joined up records, but there are obstacles to achieving this, not least children being known to various professionals across different systems. Where this isn’t recognised it creates more risk.”
Shaun adds; “children who are ‘difficult to like’ have consistently experienced rejection. Building and sustaining relationships with them has to be front and centre of the response. We then need to monitor how that works within our institutions and responses through the layers of the system.”
“We see too many cases where there are too many professionals involved with each young person, sometimes as many as 12,” explains Sonia. “That’s 12 different people coming in with different opinions and attitudes. If we can change the behaviour of the adults, we can improve the outcomes for the children. Everyone needs to be singing from the same song sheet. Families will rail against an inconsistent system that doesn’t help them – we need to reduce the number of people involved with a young person.” Although, this means we must also value and support those workers who step in.
How do we work with these understandings about risk and vulnerability?
“We need to get children out of the criminal justice system who shouldn’t be there,” suggests Alex. “Only dangerous children should be in there. We could then reduce the number of children going through youth offending teams and this will result in a better system for the most vulnerable children in society.”
“There are profound lessons to be learned,” says Marius. “We need to re-examine why children are in the youth justice system. We need to improve protection and early identification. We need to work around the young people as early as possible.”
“For all that, there’s an awful lot of good work going on and there’s clear evidence that a child first approach is working.”