The Traumatic Stress Institute fosters the transformation of organizations and service systems to trauma-informed care (TIC) through the delivery of whole-system consultation, professional training, coaching, and research.

What Does a Trauma-Informed Culture Look Like?

August 13, 2020 / by Patricia D. Wilcox, LCSW

The Traumatic Stress Institute is part of Klingberg Family Centers, a social service agency in New Britain, CT with a wide range of programs that support children and families struggling with issues of trauma.

While preparing my presentation for the Joint Commission Behavior Health Conference next week (it’s not too late to register!), I remembered that one of our proudest moments during our last survey was when the surveyor remarked that this was a special agency. A staff member asked him what he saw that made it so special. He replied, "Many agencies teach their staff about trauma-informed care. In this agency, that approach is deep in the culture." What did the surveyor observe at Klingberg that enabled him to know this? He reported these experiences to us:
  •  Hearing a therapist talk about how the mother of her client had suffered early trauma, and how this was complicating her response to her daughter.
  • Witnessing an in-depth discussion about a diabetic girl—a client—eating a large muffin for snack at school. This discussion included systems issues, peer issues, biological factors, her loneliness and hopelessness, and the pediatrician's personal experience with diabetes and eating muffins.
  • Listening to a group home therapist talk about being worried that a client who was "doing everything right" still wasn't letting anyone get close to her.
  • Observing Klingberg’s leadership respond to discovered problems that focused on systems issues rather than scapegoating.
  • Hearing a discussion between staff of whether a girl with a self-harm history should be allowed to work with knives in the kitchen, one that rejected the simplistic solution of trying to keep her away from any sharp objects.
  • Listening to group home staff sharing the pain of watching a girl make plans to live with her father and being afraid he will disappoint her.
  • Watching as in-home service staff discussed their struggles to implement an evidence-based practice while maintaining the provision of concrete help they know makes such a difference to families—even when getting new beds was nowhere in the formula.
  • Being impressed at the longevity of many staff at the agency.
  • Noticing the willingness of a program to take a kid back after a lengthy hospitalization—despite their doubts—to save her from placement in a shelter.
  • Meeting foster parents who readily related the behavior of their foster son to his past experiences of being hurt.
  • Seeing genuine warmth and connection between staff, and between staff and clients.

Though Joint Commission surveys can be nerve-racking—for it’s easy to imagine potential pitfalls and disasters when being judged by outside observers—hearing this glowing feedback was so heartening. The commitment of our staff to work from a trauma-informed lens shines clear and bright and makes for better experiences for our clients. It is the result of many years’ work and confirmation for me that we’re doing many things well.

What do you think would demonstrate trauma-informed care to an outside observer of your program?  

Tags: Whole-System Change

Patricia D. Wilcox, LCSW

Written by Patricia D. Wilcox, LCSW

Patricia D. Wilcox, LCSW, is Vice President of Strategic Development at Klingberg Family Centers and specializes in treatment of traumatized children and their families. She created the Restorative Approach™ , a trauma- and relationship-based treatment method. She is also a Faculty Trainer for Risking Connection® and an Adjunct Faculty at both the University of CT School of Social Work and St. Joseph’s University. She travels nationally to train treaters on trauma-informed care, specializing in improving the daily life of treatment programs.