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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 22, No. 1
December 2016

Engaging "Familiar" Families by Considering Parent Trauma

So much of who we are as adults is shaped by what happened to us as children. For child welfare professionals this has profound implications for how we understand and work with parents. Especially when families are familiar to our agencies due to multiple incidents of child welfare involvement, engagement means seeking to understand parents' past experiences, as well as their present struggles.

"Familiar" Families and ACEs

Research tells us that families with repeat referrals to child protective services are more likely than other families to (CCPCW, 2006):

  • Have parents with substance abuse, mental health, or domestic violence issues
  • Be experiencing unemployment (and therefore poverty)
  • Have young children or teenagers, and/or
  • Have children with emotional disturbances or mental illness.

This won't surprise child welfare workers, but it's notable how many of these risk factors are reflected in, or easily correlated to, the ten Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, shown in the box below.

Traumatic childhood experiences are amazingly common in the general population. In a study of 17,000 middle class adults with Kaiser Permanente insurance, 26% of the subjects had one ACE, 16% had two, and 23% had three or more. This study and subsequent research has shown that as the number of ACEs a person has increases, so does their risk for negative health outcomes (CDC, 2016). Some of these problems--including depression, mental illness, and drug or alcohol abuse--are also risk factors for CPS involvement.

The point here is that like other parents you encounter in your work, parents in "familiar" families may be struggling with their own unresolved trauma histories, which may interfere with their coping, parenting, and ability to work with the child welfare system. Exploring this possibility may help you connect with and engage these individuals.

To be clear: it's still our job to ensure children are safe. Understanding what a parent is dealing with isn't a magic bullet and won't necessarily change what we must do. But it can change how we do it.

For ideas about what this might look like in practice, consider the suggestions below. For a deeper study of this topic, check out the National Child Traumatic Stress Network's free online course Working with Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System at

References for this and other articles in this issue

Suggestions for Trauma-Informed Practice with Families

Child welfare professionals cannot undo parents' traumatic experiences, but they can:

  • Understand that parents' anger, fear, or avoidance may be a reaction to their own past traumatic experiences, not to the caseworker him/herself.
  • Assess parents' history to understand how past traumas may inform cur- rent functioning and parenting.
  • Motivate parents by approaching them in a non-judgmental, non-blaming, strengths-oriented way.
  • Build on parents' desire to keep their children safe and reduce children's challenging behaviors.
  • Help parents understand the impact of past trauma on current functioning and parenting, while still holding them accountable for maltreatment. Many parents are empowered and motivated when they learn there is a connection between their past experiences and their present reactions and behavior.
  • Pay attention to how trauma plays out during CFTs, home visits, visits to children in foster care, and court hearings. Help parents anticipate their possible reactions and develop different ways to respond to stressors and trauma triggers.
  • Refer parents to trauma-informed services whenever possible. Generic interventions that do not take into account parents' underlying trauma issues may not be effective.
  • Become knowledgeable about evidence-supported trauma interventions to include in service planning.
  • Advocate for the development and use of trauma-informed services in your community.

Reprinted from Birth Parents with Trauma Histories and the Child Welfare System: A Guide for Child Welfare Staff. National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2011.