By Dora Jacildo
For over 13 years, Children Today has been providing services to young children and families experiencing homelessness. Through the years our delivery model has evolved in response to our understanding of the needs of the children and families we serve. We have always been a relationship-based organization. We understand that the most effective way to assist families is by providing a safe, nurturing, and welcoming environment and by establishing a culture of respect and responsiveness.
Four years ago, we were working with a child who was diagnosed with cognitive delay, had severe behavior problems, speech delay, and was visually impaired. His mother admitted to using drugs during the pregnancy and spent time in jail before giving birth to him and becoming homeless. When they arrived at our facility, they were dis-regulated, overwhelmed, and scared. Mom did not trust us and her son’s behavior quickly became dangerous in the classroom. We worked closely with both of them. We enrolled Mom in our mental health program, scheduled regular visits with our Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and provided the child with a caregiver who spent a great deal of her day assisting him in the classroom.
The multiple needs of this family forced us to look closer at our effectiveness working with families experiencing homelessness. We realized that despite our best efforts to help families in distress, there were new strategies we needed to employ if we were to truly make a difference in the lives of those wanting our help. Every day we open our doors to families struggling with substance abuse, enduring domestic and community violence, living in severe poverty, who are homeless, scared and alone. The one condition that described the experience that all the children and families were suffering with was trauma. In many ways, we’ve known this all along, but it took us years to define it and to develop the Trauma-Informed Services that would impact every aspect of our programming.
Judith Herman, MD, author of Trauma and Recovery (1992) states that traumatic events:
(1) Render victims helpless by overwhelming force; (2) involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence and death; (3) disrupt a sense of control, connection and meaning; (4) confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror; and (5) evoke the responses of catastrophe.
In June of 2012, we made a commitment to be a Trauma-Informed organization. The board of directors approved this direction and staff immediately began a series of comprehensive trainings on trauma and its effects on young children. We assessed our environments, recruitment and enrollment practices, curriculum, and policies and procedures. We made sure we were looking at everything through the lens of trauma. Given our newfound understanding of trauma, the first priority was to make sure the children and families felt physically and emotionally safe. We accomplished this by maximizing choices for families, developing authentic relationships, providing consistent information regularly, setting clear limits, and allowing families to express feelings without fear of judgment.
On a daily basis, we acknowledge that the families we work with have histories of trauma. We know that in young children, trauma changes the brain and can cause long-term damage to their ability to develop into healthy adults. We also know that it has been scientifically proven that a safe, nurturing, and loving relationship with a consistent and predictable caregiver can heal the brain, the body, and the spirit.
We work hard to accomplish our mission every day at Children Today, and now that we are a Trauma Informed organization, we can do it even better.
Various members of the Children Today staff contribute to these blog posts.