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Using a Trauma-Informed Approach

Training Resources on Trauma-Informed Care

OVC TTAC offers a module on Trauma-Informed Care through Victim Assistance Training (VAT) Online. Module lessons include: definitions, how to develop trauma-informed programs, and more.

Project REACH also created a useful guide on Utilizing Trauma-Informed Approaches to Human Trafficking Related Work to facilitate an understanding of complex trauma reactions and to integrate awareness into direct service of survivors of human trafficking.

It is imperative that all task force members understand trauma, and how trauma affects victims’ response to services and the criminal justice process, and the individual task force members’ response to victims. Task force policies and procedures should be developed with the goal of avoiding victim re-traumatization, increasing the safety of all, and increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of interactions with victims.

For instance, one victim expressed the desire to cooperate with law enforcement after being screened and identified as a victim of trafficking by a local trafficking victim service provider; however, the victim did not show up for the first two scheduled morning appointments for an interview. When the victim did arrive several hours later, she was jumpy, angry, and only gave one-word answers to the male agent. Both the service provider and law enforcement agent felt frustrated, wondering why the victim was wasting their time. Once the service provider brought those same questions to the victim in a caring and nonjudgmental way, she learned that the victim was not sleeping most nights and that the tall male agent reminded her of her trafficker. Using a trauma-informed lens, the provider asked the victim to choose the time of day for the next appointment and whether she would prefer a female agent. This small change affected the victim’s feelings of increased control and decreased vulnerability, which made a significant difference in the efficiency and effectiveness of interactions between the victim and task force members.

A trauma-informed approach begins with understanding the physical, social, and emotional impact of trauma on the individual, as well as on the professionals who help them. This includes victim-centered practices. It incorporates three elements:

  1. Realizing the prevalence of trauma.
  2. Recognizing how trauma affects all individuals involved with the program, organization, or system, including its own workforce.
  3. Responding by putting this knowledge into practice.

Using a trauma-informed approach also helps produce better case results for law enforcement. For example, it leads to more effective interviews of victims and witnesses; it maximizes the chances of cooperation with law enforcement; and it helps structure the search for evidence to present a trauma-informed story in court to the fact-finder (judge/jury) and for the purposes of pretrial litigation. In the end, the jury will need to understand the effects of trauma to properly evaluate testimony and credibility in reaching a just verdict.

A program, organization, or task force that is trauma-informed realizes the widespread impact of trauma on victims and understands potential paths for healing; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in staff, clients, and others involved with the system; and responds by integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, practices, and settings. As in the victim-centered approach, the priority is on the victim’s safety and security and on safeguarding against policies and practices that may inadvertently traumatize victims.

Key Concept: Trauma-informed Care

  • Safety
  • Trustworthiness
  • Choice
  • Collaboration
  • Empowerment

Summary from Harris, M. & Fallot, R. (2001). Using trauma theory to design service systems. New directions in mental health services, Jossey-Bass, 89, Spring.

While each individual’s experience of trauma may be different, it is important to understand how it can tax the individual’s coping resources and lead to the initiation of biologically driven survival strategies. Trauma may be the result of a single event (natural disaster, witnessing or experiencing a violent act) or a series of ordeals (long-term abuse). The majority of trafficking situations are the culmination of many traumatic experiences, most of which are untreated. Trauma affects how victims see themselves ("I am helpless," "worthless"), their worldview (the world is dangerous, no one can protect me), and relationships ("I cannot trust anyone"). These beliefs affect how victims respond to services and the criminal justice system, and underscore the importance of task forces taking a trauma-informed approach, not only through service delivery but also throughout the investigation and prosecution process.

Professional training in trauma and trauma-informed care is essential and strongly encouraged as this training can transform the work of a task force. The bottom line to all interactions with a victim might look like this: “How can I create a situation in which the victim feels safe, makes his or her own choices, and feels understood?”

Triggering Re-traumatization

Both the criminal justice and victim services systems can inadvertently re-traumatize. Key triggers to re-traumatization include—

  • Feeling a lack of control
  • Experiencing unexpected change
  • Feeling threatened or attacked
  • Feeling vulnerable or frightened
  • Feeling shame

Placing victims in a detention facility rather than a shelter, shelter night bed checks and nightly curfews, and last minute court date changes are typical aspects of a victim’s life when cooperating with a task force investigation. Taking the active and often public steps necessary to cooperate in a law enforcement investigation, including interviewing with law enforcement and prosecutors numerous times, testifying in court, going through preliminary hearings, the trial, and appearing at sentencing can retraumatize the victim, even for victims willing and committed to going through this process. It is helpful to consider the effect of trauma when a victim exhibits behavior that may seem unusual, inconsistent, or even aggressive to assist the victim in feeling more in control, less shamed, or less frightened.

Smart Tips for Building and Utilizing a Trauma-Informed Lens in Your Task Force

  • Review agency policies and procedures to identify and remove any that are potentially unsafe and harmful to trafficking victims with histories of trauma.
  • Provide education and training of staff, including those working directly with trafficking victims as well as other providers in relevant systems of care.
  • Screen for trauma in multiple settings.
  • Ensure safety and meet basic service needs.
  • Build long-term, sustaining relationships and provide opportunities for regaining valued social roles.
  • Provide access to trauma-specific treatment services.
  • Specific to adolescents, use group therapy to address skills development, affect regulation, interpersonal connections, and competence and resiliency building.
  • Understand the role that culture plays in resiliency and the importance of community resources as potentially mediating the trauma experience, particularly for foreign-born victims.
  • Make peer models and supports available.
  • Engage survivors in programming.
  • Develop alternatives to traditional therapies.

Source: “Treating the Hidden Wounds: Trauma Treatment & Mental Health Recovery for Victims of Human Trafficking” by Heather J. Clawson, Ph.D., Amy Salomon, Ph.D., and Lisa Goldblatt Grace, LICSW, MPH.


For additional information and tools, visit the Resource page for Section 4.1 Using a Trauma-Informed Approach.