square bulletThe Heart of Trauma Informed Care

August 18, 2020

From Ana Hristić, MA, LCSW, Director of Education & Workforce Strategies, Trauma Informed Oregon

Everyone in an organization has a role to play in trauma informed care (TIC), as, in every moment (via our spaces, interactions, practices, procedures, and policies) we can:

  1. traumatize
  2. retraumatize, or
  3. be a healing presence

The principle of Empowerment, Voice, and Choice, to me, speaks to the heart of TIC, as it directly connects to its healing/restorative potential. To be a healing presence – to prioritize someone’s value, resilience, and strength – is essential to actually being trauma informed. Below I share a brief analysis of each, and I invite you to consider what else is alive for you in this regard and how this principle contributes to an ecosystem of prevention & healing.

Empowerment – one common misunderstanding of TIC is that it “focuses on the negative.” For those of us truly engaging in the work, however, we know that we must enter into partnership with another’s assets, strengths, and skills in order to honestly center value and belonging. Many institutions historically (and in some cases currently), have found it difficult to honor individual and group power, and have instead sought to manage and power-over symptoms, presentations, and manifestations of trauma. The cost of this way of providing service, is often that participants are left feeling a sense of disrespect and denial of their fundamental birthright of self-determination. What is required to be trauma informed, is for us (and our systems) to broaden our scope of understanding beyond just “What happened to you” to also include “What are you capable of? What has helped you survive this long? What passions and joys make you tick?” This level of empowerment has the potential to be a healing and restoring presence in the lives of service users and service providers, alike.

Voice – I believe that to truly listen to and utilize the voice of the people takes time and skill. Furthermore, to speak truth to power and find voice for the voiceless parts of ourselves and others, takes great courage and prowess. TIC encourages us to move beyond a lobby feedback box, or a photocopied grievance pamphlet, but to actually build relationships based on shared understanding. Many of our systems struggle to make the time for this process, and instead prioritize a transactional quieting and dehumanization of those served. This reductionist process mimics the silencing that happens in other forms of abuse, and leaves individuals and groups potentially feeling manipulated, censored, and unseen. Practices – on the intrapersonal and interpersonal, as well as organizational level – are required in TI work, to not only evoke and welcome the voice of the people, but to also use that voice to inform our organizational culture and thus reduce the toxicity experienced by many. It is my view that our systems’ capacity to listen – rather than edit and only listen to that which is easy to hear – must be strengthened. And similarly, our capacity to integrate and be impacted by that which we hear must be broadened to truly enter into the process of TIC.

Choice – to provide choice is to honor freedom, even in the most complex situations. TIC requires us to challenge the notion that some do not deserve or are not capable of this freedom, or that being in need or being a survivor somehow diminishes one’s capacity and/or wish for choice. Choice breeds creativity. Choice honors inherent value. Even in the most dire situations, through TIC we are invited to explore how we can instill agency via choice. Many systems that are built on a belief that due to lived experience and/or certain actions individuals/groups forego choice, have a very difficult time with this part of the TIC principle. They equate choice with coddling and condoning, and in some cases provide a false sense of choice where there isn’t one actually provided. It’s curious to me to explore why this is, and to notice how unstable one’s conviction of TIC thus is, and how retraumatizing consequent actions could be. To provide opportunity for choice is to share power and agency, and thus honor an ever-present ability to engage in healing.

While each of the six principles is an essential tool of TIC, I see Empowerment, Voice, and Choice as especially important. In my experience, TIC is aspiring to work against a current of domination, single voice and false choice culture. We are thus invited to examine/challenge this status quo, and build muscle memory (and individual and collective capacity) for being a healing presence for all.

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