Children who have experienced homelessness and those who have been involved in the child welfare system because of abuse or neglect share many things. They have lived in an environment that does not seem safe or predictable. Their confidence has been shaken that the adults closest to them can meet their basic needs. Their health has been impacted, their family and social networks disrupted. They have come to fear that the world cannot be trusted.
Responses to these traumas are also similar. Children may exhibit behavioral difficulties like aggression or withdrawal. They may regress developmentally in areas like language and motor skills. They may be hyper-vigilant, always on the lookout for danger. They may have attachment issues, wanting constantly to be held by a caregiver, or not wanting to be touched at all. They may have trouble sleeping. Sadly, research and our own experiences tell us that it’s not just similar responses to trauma that unite these children. The fact is that often times the child who has been homeless is the same one who has been in the child welfare system.
A TRAUMA-INFORMED APPROACH
We believe that to be able to address the myriad needs and challenges of these children, service providers must take a trauma-informed approach. This means having a clear understanding of how trauma impacts children and families and creating environments and tailoring services based on that understanding. We know that in order to provide responsive, comprehensive, trauma-informed services, the following fundamentals must be in place:
Above all, the environment is safe and predictable. For children, this means that they are treated in a consistent and loving manner, and that regardless of their behavior, their needs will be met. For parents, this means that they have confidence in program staff to meet their children’s needs.
Children and families have choice and influence. For children this means that, within their capacity, they have ample opportunities to make choices and influence decisions about their day. For parents, many of whom have been thoroughly disenfranchised by homelessness, domestic violence, and inter-generational poverty, this means that they are knowledgeable consumers and understand their rights and responsibilities within the program.
Children and families are treated with respect. For children, this means that caregivers get to know each child as an individual, understand their cues, and engage with them accordingly. For parents, this means that caregivers seek an active relationship; one that acknowledges that they are central to their children’s lives and that they know them best.
Caregivers understand that behavior can be a response to trauma. For both children and parents, this means knowing that behaviors that seem unhealthy or ineffective today may have helped in coping with trauma in the past. Therefore, helping children and parents learn new coping skills is paramount.
We allow space and time to mourn. For both children and parents, this means acknowledging that they've suffered tremendous losses and - so long as safety parameters are maintained - providing an environment where feelings of anger and distress can be explored.