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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 17, No. 2
May 2012

Engaging and Supporting Families Who Have Experienced Trauma

Many parents involved with the child welfare system have trauma histories. Whether trauma is a past experience, a current reality, or both, it can shape a person’s behaviors, feelings, and decisions. The more we learn about trauma, the more we can modify our practices and agency environments to support and engage birth parents.

As the information below from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network indicates, a history of traumatic experiences can impede parents’ ability to keep their children safe and to work effectively with child welfare agencies and others. However, it’s important to remember that each person is an individual. Any description of trauma’s impact will not necessarily “fit” each person who has experienced trauma, but it can help develop general awareness for those who work with families.

At any point in an agency’s involvement with a family, birth parents may experience trauma triggers. Consider the mother who, when asked about the child’s absent father as a possible caregiver, feels overwhelming fear—her heart pounding fiercely as memories of spousal abuse race forward. Another birth parent, removed from his home as a youth, can’t bear the thoughts that his own children are now in foster care, and therefore avoids visitation.

In these situations, a social worker knowledgeable about trauma responses might understand the intensity with which the mother demands the children’s father not be contacted. She might set aside judgment of the father’s avoidant behavior and seek to better understand his experiences and help him work through his pain toward a goal of reunification. Having empathy is important for building relationships, so that even when a social worker has to follow a course of action that is upsetting to parents but necessary in the best interest of the child, a genuine concern for the parent is evident. Understanding what a parent is dealing with won’t necessarily change what you must do, but it can change how you do it.

In working with birth parents, trauma-informed child welfare workers ask themselves questions such as:

  • How might trauma influence parents’ current abilities to nurture and care for their child?
  • How have parents managed all that’s happened to them?
  • How does the parent experience the agency or the work of the child welfare system?
  • How can I minimize trauma triggers for parents and help them draw on their strengths to increase child and family safety and well-being?

Using these questions as a guideline can help reduce the extent to which parents re-experience trauma; it can also help parents find in the agency’s interactions a source of hope and healing from the effects of trauma.
According to Pease (2012), “the relationship is the critical tool.” Social workers who are empathetic and form partnerships with parents lay the foundation for interactions that assist in trauma recovery. “Workers need to provide a psychologically safe setting for children and families while inquiring about emotionally painful and difficult experiences” (NCTSN, 2008). One way to let parents know a social worker cares about their emotional well-being is to acknowledge the physical environment. One could say, “If there are things here that make you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, let me know…we will try to make things comfortable and safe…” (Pease, 2012). Another way to assure parents and reduce triggers is to help them know what to expect throughout child welfare process; minimize surprises.

Remember Resource Families

Resource families, too, may have trauma histories. In fact, they may have trauma reactions triggered by the stuggles of the children in their homes. This, in turn, can have an impact on placement stability. We need to be sure to support resource families around trauma as well.

Acknowledging culture and language is another important aspect of engaging birth parents. Approach families with an understanding that some cultural groups have experienced trauma through involvement with child welfare or government systems. Based on that history, they have good reason to be wary of child welfare agencies. Appreciate their resilience.

Recognize the challenges that immigration presents to many families. “When immigrant families come to the United States, they lose familiar references and routines, and communication is often difficult because of language barriers. For those families who have also experienced trauma, even the small details of everyday life add to the stress and confusion” (NCTSN, 2012). Advocate for multilingual staffing that meets families’ language needs. Stay informed about world events and social/political situations in other countries and consider how these may impact the stress levels of families here who have loved ones or other ties in those countries.

Trauma-informed practice includes working alongside birth parents to find safe housing and living environments if these are not already in place. Parenting one’s children while dealing with the effects of trauma is difficult enough; worrying about personal safety compounds the stress.
Engage parents by providing them with opportunities to disclose information about their own or their children’s traumatic experiences. Strengthen parenting capacity by educating families about child and adult trauma.

In addition, focus on visitation for birth parents and their children. Ensuring “frequent and quality visits between parents and children is essential to reducing overwhelming emotions associated with trauma and minimizing disruptions in relationships” (CECMH, 2011). Through visitation parents have an opportunity to nurture their children and build on the skills they have for providing a safe, loving home. Referring parents to resources for trauma recovery can improve visitation as parents build on relationship and safety skills.

Ultimately, helping a birth parent who is hurting from traumatic experiences benefits both the parent and the child. Simply by reserving judgment, learning, asking and interacting positively with parents we communicate our desire to be trusted partners.

Resources for Families
Birth Parents with Trauma Histories in the Child Welfare System: A Guide for Birth Parents (2012)

Birth Parents with Trauma Histories and the Child Welfare System: A Guide for Resource Parents (2011)

References for this and other articles in this issue