Can a “one-stop-shop” be trauma-informed?

This year during May, designated as Mental Health Awareness Month, Pennsylvania joined other states in the #WeHealUS movement to advocate for trauma-informed systems that better serve crime victims and trauma survivors.

“When trauma becomes a normal part of life that is embedded in communities it can destroy hope and make the change process even more difficult.”

“When trauma becomes a normal part of life that is embedded in communities it can destroy hope and make the change process even more difficult.” That’s the problem that #WeHealUS wants to solve. Bringing that problem-solving energy to Pennsylvania is the HEAL PA coalition of state agencies, partner organizations, survivor support resources, and experts from many disciplines. Through action teams with specific focus areas, the coalition has created a Trauma-Informed PA Plan and a five-year strategy for how to get there. Children’s Advocacy Centers have been a part of that conversation, with several CAC professionals serving as members of the Child Abuse Prevention Action Team.

Children’s Advocacy Centers are big supporters of trauma-informed work because that work is at the core of what we do. In fact, our national standards specify that accredited CACs “function within a trauma-informed framework designed to reduce harm and support healing” (National Standards of Accreditation for Children’s Advocacy Centers, 2023 Edition–National Children’s Alliance).

In providing a sensitive and supportive team response to abuse, the CAC model keeps the needs of child victims and their caregivers first and foremost. Team members collaborate so that an investigation does not retraumatize a child. They share information so that families get the full array of services needed for healing. And they walk alongside child victims and caregivers, knowing that navigating systems–medical, mental health, criminal justice, social services, and others–can be confusing and overwhelming.

Sometimes CACs are described as a “one-stop-shop”: a safe, welcoming place where the response to child abuse is coordinated so that families don’t have the added stress of figuring out what they need and where to go next. The “one-stop-shop” analogy is helpful for understanding how CACs make the process much easier and more efficient for families in crisis. But let’s be clear: “one-stop-shop” doesn’t mean “one-size-fits-all.” Part of being trauma-informed means that CACs are able to serve any child and their family who walks through the door. That could be a 4-year-old or a 17-year-old. A girl, boy, or transgender child. It could be a family that is white, Black, Latino–or of mixed race or ethnicity. There could be language or dialect differences that must be bridged. There could be religious or cultural contexts that affect how a child or caregiver interacts with CAC staff or partners. A parent or caregiver could be dealing with their own trauma of past or current abuse. There may or may not be siblings involved. These factors–and so many more–affect the unique dynamics of any particular CAC case and are considered in this helpful guide, “Building Trauma-Informed Children’s Advocacy Centers,” by Western Regional Children’s Advocacy Center.

“Trauma-informed care isn’t a program. It’s a way of understanding those we work with and serve…it acknowledges that people feel and react differently.”

Those unique dynamics, along with individual experiences, also affect how someone responds to trauma. During a session hosted by HEAL-PA this month, Drew Krantz–a trauma therapist at UPMC Child Advocacy Center of Central PA–shared from his experience providing individualized mental health services for child victims of abuse. “Trauma-informed care isn’t a program,” he explained. “It’s a way of understanding those we work with and serve…it acknowledges that people feel and react (to trauma) differently.” Drew knows what it takes to support individuals in the healing process–and to support individuals who all “feel and react differently.” That’s why trauma therapists like Drew are trained in many different treatment models (with some tongue-twisting acronyms like CFTSI, TF-CBT, AF-CBT, and EMDR). Each approach is different–therapists often think of them as different “tools in the toolbox”–yet they all have the same commitment to understanding the effects of trauma and what it takes for clients to find healing.

The diversity of therapy models is just one example of the CAC commitment to being trauma-informed. Whether a therapist, forensic interviewer, or victim advocate–CAC staff are prepared to meet child victims and their caregivers where they’re at. That means gathering information about a case, without making assumptions. It means not knowing how a conversation will go, so being prepared to ask good questions and follow up as needed. It means thinking creatively to identify a family’s needs and connect them to resources in the community. It means having a collaborative team whose members can bring options to the table.

We’re proud to be doing the work of trauma-informed services in communities all across Pennsylvania, and we’re proud to help shape the conversation about what a truly trauma-informed state could look like. Thank you, CACs!

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