Trauma-Informed Systems

Understanding trauma and its impact on a child’s social and emotional well-being is an important building block toward establishing a more trauma-informed child welfare system—in other words, a system that works to provide physical and psychological safety for a child; listens to the child’s wants and needs; surrounds the child with caring adults; ensures that the child has an attachment with a caregiver; gives the child as much control over his or her life as possible; ensures that the child has a consistent, predictable environment; and in every way possible fosters the child’s various protective and coping factors.

With that understanding, agencies can successfully use ACYF’s framework for social and emotional well-being in their work.  The overarching purpose of this framework is to help agencies understand and support well-being of maltreated children and foster positive system change.  ACYF regards the framework to be a continuation, or logical next step, of its historical emphasis on child and family well-being.  Agencies should not regard trauma-informed child welfare as an initiative that competes with other initiatives but rather employ it as a more accurate, sensitive lens through which current practice is observed and assessed, revealing fresh insights that can be integrated into everyday practice.  Understanding trauma and working from that perspective will enable caseworker staff to better engage families, link them to more appropriate services, and ensure improved long-term outcomes for both children and families.  

Many states are developing or initiating practice models, or conceptual maps, of how agency staff and professionals, resource families, and stakeholders will function and collaborate to meet the needs of families and ensure the safety, permanency, and well-being of children served.  The core elements of a practice model include:

  • Clearly stated mission, values, vision, and standards of practice
  • Strategies for implementing standards of practice
  • A plan for assessing needs and engaging families in services
  • Clearly defined strategies for agencies to achieve outcomes
  • A plan for sustaining practice and system changes

Many states are diligently working toward development or implementation of new practice models.  Some, however, have not yet integrated trauma knowledge and strategies into those models.  In order for frontline staff to truly embrace trauma-informed practice and trauma-focused treatments, it is essential to incorporate trauma knowledge and concepts into existing and future practice models.  Guidelines are available that provide concrete strategies to update a practice model so that it is more trauma-informed; for one example, see Link. 

It is also critical for an agency to focus on evidence-based practice.  By focusing only on promising approaches that have been proven effective through research, testing, or experience, an agency can ensure the best outcomes for the populations it serves.  Furthermore, initiatives to promote social and emotional well-being through trauma-focused treatments that require clinical expertise and guidance should be integrated with a state’s current efforts to promote safety and permanency.  This avoids replacing or compromising any effective existing practices.  The same holds true for trauma-focused interventions that go beyond treatment to include day-to-day casework and caregiver activities and practice, and that promote the child’s protective and coping factors.