Debunking Myths of Trauma-Informed Care: Lessons Learned from Hopeworks ‘N Camden

From school shootings to Oprah and even Netflix, we are hearing more and more about the importance of a trauma framework when working with young people. Shifting to this approach is not a one-and-done initiative. It’s a continual process, even for organizations that made the commitment long before it was a trending topic. Hopeworks ‘N Camden is a trauma-informed web design job training program for youth ages 16 to 25. We began our learning and implementation of trauma informed care in 2011, and you can read about the impact of these changes in a research study by the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers University.

This shift to trauma-informed care requires deep introspection from the provider and the organizational system. Before an organization can move forward to creating healing communities, we must first debunk some myths of trauma-informed care. Here are four.

Myth: Trauma-informed care is only about the youth. Let’s face it, we are all helpers. And… we all have something in our histories that led us to these roles. Traumainformed care isn’t just about the people we partner with to heal; it’s also about a honest look within ourselves. Supervision at Hopeworks, for example, changed from focusing on numbers to framing challenging youth behaviors as helpful, in some way – and even asking how a young person’s behaviors may be triggering something within the staff member. It requires a new way of working with employee conflict: Water cooler talks have given way to systems checks. These are not easy conversations. But, we can’t do this work without looking at ourselves. And, if your staff can’t recognize the “me, I, and us” in trauma-informed care, then it will never work. Trauma-informed care not only creates a safer and more inclusive community for our youth, but also for our staff and board.

Myth: Being trauma-informed means no consequences. Could you imagine a world without consequences? Imagine wanting the best for young people and then not preparing them for the harsh realities of the world we are in. Trauma-informed care is all about consequences: consequences that are rational, timely, and meaningful. They are predictable. Individuals impacted by trauma deserve control and choices, two things that are often taken away from our youth. At Hopeworks, we run three businesses that exist to create job opportunities for our youth. Through these businesses our youth offer web design, mapping, and trauma-training services. It’s an amazing opportunity for them, but we can’t employ young people without consequences. When a young person is late, we have conversations with them about what is happening and help them to identify their own solutions. These conversations come with a verbal warning and a whole lot of love and support. Empowering youth to own their life is about offering choices and connecting consequences, both good and bad, to those decisions in a meaningful and intentional way.

Myth: Being trauma-informed means lowering expectations. Before we made the shift to trauma-informed care, like all youth organizations, attendance was a challenge. Staff became frustrated with youth constantly showing up late. Their solution? To close the door when a training or activity began, with a sign on the door telling late-arriving youth to go home and try again tomorrow. Shifting to trauma-informed care means meeting people where they are and creating a process to work with people as they meet the expectations. When a youth shows up late, it is a daily conversation about what is happening and supporting them with making the changes to be successful. The expectation doesn’t change, but the way we respond when youth struggle to meet the expectation is what changes. Boundaries are critical for youth who have been impacted by trauma. Clear and communicated boundaries and expectations are key. Our young people are capable and resilient. The youth we are working with have been fighters all their lives. They stand before us today as victors in their own lives. Trauma-informed care is about working with our youth to identify times in their life when they were successful and using these past experiences to connect to the present and their plan for success. They can meet any expectations we create when they have loving and caring adults in their lives who believe in them.

Myth: Everyone can do it. This might be the hardest truth to share, but the reality is that not everyone can work in a trauma-informed culture. There are some who fundamentally believe in level playing fields and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. There are some who can’t look at our youth without thinking, “We all have difficult experiences and setbacks in life. If someone else can rise up, why can’t they?!” These are the individuals that struggle most with trauma-informed care. We also know that trauma-informed care is a systems-level change process. It means the entire staff – including front desk staff, development staff, and financial officers – must be traumainformed. Leadership often presents the most significant roadblocks to implementing trauma-informed care. It’s can’t just be about the ones who do direct service. Traumainformed care is not just about being able to recite brain science and types of traumas. It requires individuals to alter their belief systems about youth. It means, during the interview process, asking potential staff members questions about times they were disappointed by a youth – and how they responded to that disappointment. We have to know that potential staff members practice self-care before even considering them for employment. Six years after our initial trauma training, only two of the original staff members are still at the organization. We realized that it is not just about hiring good people and training them, but hiring the right people.

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