Sunday, December 9, 2012

Reversing Trauma

I am presently working on a community assessment for the Oakland Head Start (OHS) program. On Tuesday this past week I had the pleasure of participating in a community meeting held by OHS to gather input from partners and program participants (parents) about what data to collect and what areas to investigate as part of the assessment. I love the Head Start program. I worked for our local Head Start for five years and I know from firsthand experience that this program (and Early Head Start) changes people’s lives. It truly makes a difference for children and families.

Each year Head Start programs all over the country conduct either a triennial full community assessment or an interim assessment update. The community assessment is used to guide development of program goals and objectives so that they are based on the most pressing needs, concerns, interests, and challenges of families enrolled in the program.

At the meeting on Tuesday, during my few minutes to present, I told the group that I thought the most valuable contribution I could make to the conversation was my knowledge, as a grant writer who works with professionals in communities across the nation, that there is an emerging focus on providing trauma-informed services to distressed families impacted by poverty. The federal government is interested in hearing how programming in human services, health, education, and justice will address the trauma that people are experiencing.

In a nutshell, this is what I shared with the group. Research shows that children who live in violent communities manifest symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Low-income inner-city children and families live in just such communities and frequently suffer from undiagnosed and untreated PTSD. These children must be linked to therapeutic services specifically designed to deal with the trauma and reverse the affects of PTSD. It is also critical that parents who suffer from undiagnosed and untreated PTSD are linked to therapeutic services. Children’s development derives directly from their parents’ ability to function and the extent of parents’ functioning and stability derives directly from their own childhood experience. Childhood trauma is referred to in the field as “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or ACEs. ACEs include exposure to violence (as victim or witness) in the home and/or in the community, homelessness, food insecurity and hunger, loss of a parent (through abandonment, death, incarceration, or disappearance into substance abuse and/or mental illness), and other traumatic occurrences that cause fear, stress, and anxiety for children. Here are some facts about ACEs:  1) ACEs are surprisingly common; 2) ACEs still have a profound damaging effect, even 50 years later, although they become transmuted from adverse experience into organic disease, social malfunction, substance and behavioral addictions, and mental illness; 3) ACEs are the main determinant of the health and social wellbeing of communities throughout the country. People who have suffered ACEs convert the traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into physical ill health and risky/antisocial behavior later in life. People internalize the trauma and manifest it in their bodies in the form of chronic disease. Unless ACEs are addressed through trauma-informed therapeutic services (including newly emerging somatic therapies that utilize body work) specifically designed to reverse the impact of ACEs and to recognize and treat PTSD, then the ability of any service delivery program to make a permanent difference in the lives of children and their families is negligible.

So I briefly shared this with the group and when I got done speaking everyone in the room was quivering with the desire to jump in and respond. The educators and service providers in the group were practically giving off an electrical charge because my words resonated with them so strongly. A woman stood up and spoke in Spanish. She is a Head Start parent and she speaks no English. She told a story about her son, who was beaten in the street outside her home by a group of young men interested in stealing his hat. Could they just steal the hat? No, they had to beat him up first. He has had several brain surgeries since the beating and he is still struggling to recover. Tears ran down the woman’s cheeks as she spoke. She said that her family is now afraid to leave their apartment. Their life is impossible. There was more to her story, but the interpreter only gave us this much and I don’t understand Spanish so, regretfully, I did not get to hear everything the woman said. When she finished speaking, another woman, an Asian woman who is a service provider, spoke in English about a similar violent incident that occurred to a member of her family. She, too, cried as she spoke.

When the Asian woman finished telling her story, I said, “This is ground zero. What these women and their families have experienced is ground zero.” Everyone nodded in agreement. The discussion went on from there. Later, in the restroom, a woman told me that when I spoke about trauma-informed service delivery, she got goosebumps. She is a therapist and her dream is to open a trauma clinic in downtown Oakland to focus on providing trauma-informed therapy to address the impact that the epidemic of violence in Oakland has on children and families.

I rarely have the opportunity to meet in person with the people with whom I work. Although the meeting last week was emotionally wrenching, I cherish it. I was able to see the faces of many dedicated and committed educators, healers, and service providers in Oakland. Their task is huge. They have shouldered it with determination and love. I continue to try to assist them in their critical work through my gift with words. 

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