To fully understand the negative role that trauma can play within the child welfare system, one must first understand the impact of child maltreatment upon children who enter the system. While states have varying legal definitions, the term "child maltreatment" typically refers to a child who is physically, sexually, or emotionally abused or neglected; exploited; or exposed to domestic violence by a parent or caregiver. These types of maltreatment can lead to childhood trauma.
Trauma itself can be defined as "simple" or "complex." Simple trauma refers to a single, isolated, definable traumatic event. Even a single incident of maltreatment can be traumatic and lead to a wide range of potentially negative short-term psychological and behavioral responses from the child that include fear, dissociation, inability to regulate emotions, loss of trust, attachment disorders, and many other issues.
However, evidence also suggests that different types of abuse and neglect rarely occur in isolation. In other words, maltreated children often experience multiple types of abuse or neglect, which in turn results in even greater maladjustment and negative outcomes. Complex trauma, also referred to as “chronic interpersonal trauma,” refers to a child’s experience of multiple traumatic events or maltreatment that often occur within the context of the child’s caregiving situation. This chronic maltreatment can result in a lack of secure bonding between the child and his or her primary caregiver, which in turn can cause significant negative effects across multiple well-being domains. However, children vary enormously in how they are affected by complex trauma, due in large part to a variety of protective and coping factors that each child may or may not possess.
For years, child welfare agencies have provided treatments to maltreated children that focus primarily on a child's mental health. However, these traditional therapeutic treatments are often ill-designed to deal with victims of trauma and often fail to provide needed long-term support and flexible approaches. To be effective in their work with maltreated children, agencies must be aware of the differences between treatments traditionally focused on mental health and treatments that are truly part of a trauma-informed system.
The Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF) has developed a Framework for Social and Emotional Well-Being that establishes four well-being domains across which a child’s functioning can be assessed. This framework helps provide child welfare agencies with an understanding of how to more effectively work with children whose lives have been affected by trauma.