The Role of the YWCA in a Trauma Informed City

By Tracey Madden-Hennessey

Trauma is described as a deeply distressing event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope.(Center for Non-Violence and Social Justice). Many equate it with victims of violence, however, trauma can be created by many factors that include:
• Interpersonal violence – such as abuse, rape, domestic violence, and bullying;
• Social violence — such as war, terrorism, and living under oppressive political regimes;
• Natural disasters and accidents — such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, and auto crashes;
• Chronic social stressors – such as racism, sexism, poverty, humiliation and cultural dislocation;
• Childhood trauma — such as the types of trauma measured by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study)

Tarpon Springs noted that “an ACE Study which measured 10 childhood traumas – ex. physical, emotional and sexual abuse; emotional and physical neglect; a parent who’s an alcoholic or addicted to other drugs; a mother who’s been battered; a family member in prison or diagnosed with mental illness; and a loss of a parent through divorce or abandonment – in 17,000 people in San Diego. Researchers found a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.”

Additional research on the negative impact of trauma on the developing brain is plentiful. For children, exposure to violence and trauma, interferes with cognitive development and literally rewires the brain making it difficult to learn and function in a structured school setting.

The State Department of Children and Families has cited statistics indicating New Britain has the highest rate of substantiated child abuse cases of any city in the state. Trauma is a significant factor in many local lives.

In addition, a survey of local middle and high school students, indicated the community should be concerned. High rates of depression among students, and more alarming, a rate of suicide attempts among the student body indicates many young people are suffering. Agencies and individuals are recognizing the need to do more as a community to address the social and emotional well-being of residents, both children and adults.  

Cities across the country, (Philadelphia, PA and Tarpon Springs, FL for example) are identifying themselves as Trauma Informed Cities. As a community, “they have made a commitment to engage people in all walks of life – education, juvenile justice, welfare, housing, medical practices, businesses, etc. — towards a common goal of less trauma…large and small, immediate and generational.”

Becoming trauma informed as a community shifts the way people in the city think and work to address the issue. New Britain is experienced in working as a community to address complicated issues; drawing partners together to devise strategies that engage the combined resources and strengths of many sectors. Becoming trauma informed will build upon this experience.

Members of Philadelphia’s Trauma Informed Network shared the actions needed for a citywide trauma informed approach:
• Education for all sectors of the community (including families) about trauma, adversity, attachment and resilience.
• Leaders and residents shift from reacting to incidents of trauma to prevention of trauma in the city.
• Basic public health strategies that focus on 3 questions: How do we address the problems of those who have already experienced trauma? How can we minimize the danger to those already at risk? What measures of prevention and response need to be in place for everyone?

The YWCA has a long history (more than 30 years) of helping those exposed to the trauma associated with sexual assault. Most recently, in partnership with Wheeler Clinic and The Connecticut Department of Children and Families, the agency opened the city’s first Trauma Informed Early Childhood Classroom.

Although important, individual agency approaches are not enough to address the magnitude of the issue. They must be part of a comprehensive system of interventions that ripple through the city.

Small, but significant steps began two years ago when the School District shared its Well Managed Classroom resources with summer and after school community providers so that professionals working with youth, whether during the school day or after, were using the same techniques to guide behavior. YWCA staff were among the first group of providers trained in this method.

As New Britain became more aware of the pervasive harm that trauma inflicts on a community, additional steps toward implementing a city approach began through the Coalition for New Britain’s Youth. The YWCA is a partner and leader in the Coalition. Plans for a pilot initiative with after school providers serving middle and high school youth began in earnest this past year. Staff from four community based organizations will be trained during the pilot using the Preparing to Thrive Tool developed by The David P. Weikart Center. Preparing to Thrive allows programmers to compare their practices to quality standards that have been shown to best impact social, emotional skill development in the after school setting. By making the comparison to standards in the tool, and paired with additional training on teaching social emotional skills, it is anticipated that after school programs will be better places for all students. An additional follow up component will employ trained mental health professionals through Community Mental Health Affiliates to offer consultative assistance to programmers as they encounter challenges to adapting programs to best practice.

These are only the first steps towards a Trauma Informed City. Discussions at other tables, that include many community leaders and parents, indicate there is significant interest in New Britain joining these pioneering communities. The YWCA looks ahead, supporting and contributing to these efforts.