The Importance of Becoming a Trauma Informed Organization

Child and parent holding hands

It is an honor to support children, families, and individuals whose lives have been impacted by traumatic experiences.  Since this work is a large part of our mission, our team at Maine Children’s Home (MCH) has understood our responsibility in helping to change the conversation about being a trauma-informed organization.

What is it that makes a difference? We do. We are small, but mighty.

The answers to “what is it that makes a difference?” have the capacity to change lives, our agency, and our community, because trauma — treatment of trauma and healing and recovery from trauma — is the work we are called to do, even more now with the impact of the collective trauma of Covid:

  • I’ve spoken with a parent whose 10-year-old son, after the family had all contracted Covid, said to his parents, “Guys, the world feels like impending doom.”
  • I’ve heard a school staff tell me about the enormous number of resignations this past month.
  • I’ve heard a Registered Nurse tell me about the massive shortage of staff that was impacting her team at work.
  • I've listened to families looking for relief for their children’s increased stress, humans looking for relief from symptoms of things like depression, anxiety, and trauma, and wanting a soft, safe place to land. 

There are so many other stories of collective trauma that make us see how We can make a difference through trauma-informed practices.

How we do it: We follow SAMHSA's Trauma-Informed Principles

For MCH to become a trauma-informed organization, we have considered key assumptions in a trauma-informed approach in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Trauma-Informed Principle — the Four R’s.

Organizations are trauma-informed when they:

  • Realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand potential paths for recovery
  • Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma
  • Respond by fully integrating this knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices
  • and finally, actively Resists Re-traumatization of our clients, staff and community.

When people experience trauma and are re-activated by what they perceive as a threat, their brains and bodies go into protection mode.  Dr. Stephen Porges in his book,  The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe, (Norton, 2017) calls it Fight, Flight, or Freeze. We frequently don’t see this “protection mode” or know it is happening for others.

People who are experiencing re-activated trauma might respond with:

  • Fight response which can look like anger, frustration, or irritation
  • OR a Flight response which can look like panic, anxiety, or fear
  • OR a Freeze response which can look like shutting down, or feeling things like shame or hopelessness.

When someone experiences a Fight, Flight, or Freeze response, it takes time for them to regulate their brain back to safety — to be calm, settled, grounded, mindful, open, and compassionate. 

We, at MCH, talk about the evidence that a child’s brain and body must be regulated before they are ready to learn; a human's body must be regulated first, AND the adults caring for children must be regulated before being ready to work or intervene.

And in our work, in our leadership, it is crucial to understand this.

As an organization, MCH has recognized the need to honor and regulate ourselves first and provided trauma-informed training for all staff. We followed up with a training regarding the Impact of Collective Trauma, and asked ourselves questions, such as “What does a Trauma-Informed Organization look like?”

We’ve begun doing work from the inside out — overall organizational shifts and staff trainings, and community outreach and training. We’re also continuing our research on the most recent best practices and information, such as The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) new document Adverse Childhood Experiences Prevention Strategy and the Secretary of Education’s new document regarding Best Practice for Student Mental Health.

Moving Forward With Our Next Steps

As MCH moves forward, considering self-reflecting questions and new research, we plan to:

  • Enhance skills to help parents and youth handle stress, manage emotions and tackle everyday challenges
  • Connect youth to caring adults and activities
  • Intervene early to lessen immediate and long-term harm
  • Have clinical staff trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Regulation) Evidence-Based treatment modality for trauma
  • Train with the SMARTmoves colleagues in Newton, MA for SMART (Sensory Motor Arousal Regulation Treatment) to treat complex trauma
  • Create trauma-informed spaces
  • Create spaces that support regulation
  • Have a well-supported staff wellness plan based on trauma-informed principals

Our work and understanding of our work continues, so we can move toward being leaders in our Community

Doug Conant, the author of The Blue Print: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights. He writes: 

Leadership does not consist of one speech, one decision, or one change initiative. It’s our behavior in the smallest of moments that forms our legacy and determines whether we triumph or fail.

So I challenge us all as individuals, as leaders, as our small but mighty Maine Children’s Home in my great hometown of Waterville, Maine, along with our greater Waterville  Community and communities throughout our great State of Maine …

ASK YOURSELVES:

How do you show up? How do you say hello that invites a positive, safe interaction?

How do you create safe space for human beings to thrive at home, and work?  Literally safe space, top to bottom, outside and inside? How do you connect with others? How do you treat everyone you come in contact with, EVEN when or especially when you disagree?

How do you lead?  How will WE lead?

“It is our behavior in the smallest of moments that forms our legacy and determines whether we triumph or fail.”

It Matters.


References:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Adverse Childhood Experiences Prevention Strategy.. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021.

Conant, D., (2021). The Blueprint. 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights.

Daniels, E.R., (2021). The Regulated Classroom.

Menschner, C., Maul Key, A. (2016). Ingredients for Successful Trauma-Informed Care Implementation;  Center for Health Care Strategies.

Perry, Bruce; Stress, (2020). Trauma and Brain Insights for Educators, Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics.

SAMHSA (2014). SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma.

SAMHSA (2014). TIP 57: Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Available at:

http://store.samhsa.gov/product/TIP-57-Trauma-Informed-Care-in-Behavioral-Health-Services


About Sharon S. Fowler, BSW, MSW, LCSW

Clinical Director at Maine Children’s Home, Waterville, Maine

Sharon FowlerSharon serves as the Clinical Director at Maine Children’s Home in Waterville, Maine.  In her role, she provides clinical direction, supervision, and training for the Mental Health policies, procedures, and initiatives for the Programs within the Agency.  Programs include:  Adoption (Domestic & International); Christmas; Connected Families (Training & Special Projects); and Counseling Center. She is a seasoned professional having worked as a Clinical Social Worker and Clinical Supervisor in mental health and public education settings in her 33 years of practice. 

Sharon has received clinical training in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Triple-P Parenting evidence-based treatment models. She has additional specialized training in Trauma-Informed Schools and Women in Leadership.  She is a certified Behavioral Health Professional trainer and has trained extensively on the topic of Trauma and Trauma-Informed Schools.  She is a passionate advocate for creating Trauma-Informed Organizations.  Sharon also serves as a Member-At-Large for the National Association of Social Workers - Maine Chapter and is the Chair of the NASW - Maine School Social Work Committee.

Sharon grew up in Waterville, Maine, and received her Bachelor of Social Work Degree from the University of Southern Maine. She traveled to Houston, Texas to study and received her Master of Social Work Degree from the University of Houston with a concentration in Children & Families.  Her professional work led her to Boston, Massachusetts where she served in leadership positions in residential treatment settings and social service agencies before returning to Maine to raise her children. In Maine, she has been a leader in mental health, home-based treatment, and educational settings where she has been employed.