High Hopes for Healing

by Michele Rosenberg

Every social worker has one: the case you can’t forget. For me, it’s a teen girl I’ll call Neela. She and her sister had suffered so much neglect because their mother couldn’t kick her drug habit. The facts were no regular meals, stable home, or adult supervision. But the heart of the situation was two girls overwhelmed with fear, sadness, disappointment, and anger. Still, in Neela I also saw intelligence, an outgoing personality, and determination.
Although he had not been part of her life, Neela’s father was willing to make a home for her. My job was to help that to happen. I used all the skills I had to support them in building a relationship. But on the first night in her father’s home, Neela got angry, lost control, and trashed her room. This was the first of many behavioral outbursts. Neela was clearly in pain, and I spent many sleepless nights pondering how to help her without resorting to the solutions of the time: medication, a locked facility, or both.

To see needs like these and know how to help is precisely why D.C. child welfare is determined to become a trauma-informed system. We were overjoyed in October 2012, when we won a $3.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. Their support has launched us on our way.

Trauma-informed treatment stems from scientific findings we didn’t have even a decade ago. It helps us understand the effects of trauma on brain development and functioning. It tells us how to identify the triggers that set children off and to teach them new ways to feel safe and in control. Experience has shown it can dramatically speed and improve healing of child victims without relying on medications, hospitalization, or prolonged counseling.

Here at the DC Child and Family Services Agency, we’re partnering with scientists, researchers, practitioners, and others in the private sector to become the first public child welfare system to embed trauma-informed treatment. We’re training social workers, foster parents, attorneys, counselors, teachers, and many others so all of us can use the same effective techniques. The children and youth we serve have experienced too many traumas already and should not face a life sentence of disrupted development and low potential. Our highest hope is to improve our success rate in renewing children’s opportunities for the healthy, happy, productive lives they deserve.

As we pursue this vision, we’ll share our adventures here. You’ll be able to meet the trauma experts we’re working with, learn about new techniques along with us, and find out how trauma training is making a difference to our social workers and other practitioners. I hope you’ll become a regular follower, and I especially look forward to your comments.

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