Looking Through Trauma-Colored Glasses

by Michele Rosenberg

This post comes straight from the front lines of child welfare. CFSA Supervisory Social Worker Ann Reilly shares how enhanced clinical skills are helping service teams meet the real needs of children and families.


Guest blogger Ann Reilly:

As District child welfare works to become a trauma-informed system, it has been no small feat to get all of us on the front lines trained in Trauma Systems Therapy (TST)—Reillyespecially while keeping up with responsibilities to the children and families we’re serving. But CFSA’s social workers are making it work, balancing caseloads with reading the TST textbook, attending classroom training, and participating in coaching conference calls. From where I’m sitting as an out-of-home social work supervisor, one of the greatest benefits of all this is that we’re developing a common point of view. It’s as if we’ve been given trauma-colored glasses. No matter the social worker’s background, who the judge is, where the child is receiving therapy, or which foster parent is involved, we look through our new glasses and see the trauma first.

Acknowledging Child Trauma

For the first time, we’re putting words to the fact that removal from parents, no matter the circumstances in the home, is traumatic for kids. We’re being open with families about the trauma of removal, so we need to place the children with kin whenever possible, do as much parent-child visitation as possible, and focus on re-establishing permanence as soon as possible. We’re encouraging our foster parents to see the children’s challenging behaviors not as disrespect or poor home training but as traumatic stress. Something is triggering the children’s behavior, and all of us need to put on our trauma-colored glasses (maybe even trauma night vision goggles) and figure out what the children perceive as threatening in the environment.

Many Parents Traumatized, Too

We see traumatized children—but often, their parents are traumatized, too. Why has Mom not gotten a job for almost a year when she knows that as soon as she does, we can help her with housing and return her children? It’s easy to think she’s lazy or doesn’t care about her kids. But when we slow down, put on our trauma-colored glasses, and talk to Mom, we get a different picture.

Mom witnessed her sister being shot seven times at close range. Mom looked her sister’s killer in the face, and police and the court had to relocate the family out of the city to protect them. But when Mom ran out of money and needed the support of her extended family, she and her children came back to DC. Now, Mom is living with relatives and applying for jobs within walking distance of their home. Money is tight, and Mom is avoiding transportation costs. But unfortunately, this is the same community where the killer and gang members live. At Mom’s last job, one of them walked in to make a purchase, and Mom got so scared, she fled from work and got fired.

We can’t change the neighborhood so Mom feels 100 per cent safe, and we can’t go back in time and make her trauma disappear. But through TST, we can take a different approach. We can put her “non-compliance” in context and get her the therapy and safety she needs to heal herself and her children.

Taking the Time to Make Sense

Being on the front lines of child welfare is hard work. Some days, we feel we’re running and getting nowhere—that for every step forward, there are six steps back—and then a crisis breaks at 6 p.m. I’m thankful for the TST training and intentional focus on trauma that helps us slow down and make sense of what’s happening before a child or parent reaches the boiling point. It’s good to have our trauma-colored glasses.

Ann Reilly, MSW, LICSW, is a supervisory social worker in CFSA’s Permanency Administration, which serves children in foster care and their families. She oversees a unit of five social workers and has been with CFSA for six years.