By Moran Center Deputy Director and Director of Social Work Services Kristen Kennard
In most cases, the first time the Moran Center lawyers and social workers interact with a child, it is after an incident that resulted in court involvement or school discipline. These first interactions often take place in a courthouse, jail or school office. At first glance, our staff may appear to be just another adult who is there to judge or punish them, or perhaps to help them but without truly understanding them. But we have learned to approach these initial interactions by demonstrating that we are interested not just in the incident that led to the “problem” but also in what happened in the days, weeks, and even years leading up to the incident.
Just as many adults ask the question “why is this young person behaving this way?” or “what is wrong with this young person?”, the young person is usually asking themselves those same questions. By using a trauma-informed approach, the Moran Center has been able to help shift those questions in that young person’s mind by explaining that when someone experiences trauma their brain learns adaptive responses in order to help them deal with and survive in the situation they are in. While everyone’s responses may be different, all are adaptive and this is normal given the circumstance. Moran Center social workers have utilized this trauma-informed approach during therapy and it is clear the relief that is immediately felt by our clients. I observe their shoulders being tense and stiff in the beginning of this conversation and by the end of our session, their shoulders are slowly dropping and relaxed. I can see the sense of relief on their faces with a small smirk while a light bulb goes off in their head reassuring them that they are not bad or different. Their life experiences have caused these adaptive responses. Once this young person is able to recognize this, we can begin the real work of developing new responses that will improve how they feel about themselves and how they interact with others.
While clients may spend the most time with their social workers, their interactions with their attorneys, is just as crucial. Following our team’s recent trauma trainings, I had a very lengthy meeting with one of our attorneys and a client. This meeting involved discussing some heavy material and talking through some really important decisions that could potentially change the rest of this client’s life. As I observed the interaction between our client and his attorney, I couldn’t help but notice the many different trauma-informed practices that the attorney was using. I watched our client who typically does not feel comfortable opening up to people be extremely open and vulnerable with his attorney. He presented relaxed and comfortable even though the conversation was not an easy one. Following this group meeting, our client confided in me that this meeting felt different to him. He really felt heard and understood by his attorney and he felt that his attorney was extremely patient with him. This resulted in the client feeling more confident in his attorney’s ability to advocate for him. Using a trauma-informed lens contributes to the client’s self-worth and is absolutely invaluable to the relationships we are working to build with our clients.