Plenty Left To Do In 'Trauma-Informed Berkshires' Campaign

Dec 14, 2018

The people working on the "Trauma-Informed Berkshires" campaign have learned to explain their goals succinctly and consistently. 

They often repeat the catch-phrase: “Instead of asking, 'What’s wrong with you,' try asking, ‘What happened to you?’” 

It's hard to imagine anyone being against this empathic approach.

But in practice, getting an entire, diverse community to stop and think about what their neighbors, clients or students have been through is easier said than done.

There's pieces of it where I think, ‘Why aren't people already doing some of this stuff?’” said Karen Vogel of the Berkshire United Way, which helps run the campaign. “I mean, just to be nice to people and understand people. But we know that's not the case.”

Vogel organizes community meetings and works with small groups who want to understand the effects of trauma. But she said it's often been hard to get buy-in from city government, first responders or major health systems.

So that's daunting,” Vogel said. “How do we get everybody thinking in this mindset?”

Vogel suspects local politicians have more urgent priorities — like the city and school budgets.

But long-term, if we can create this trauma-informed community,” she said, “there may be less problems in school, and less problems for the police department.”

Earlier this year, there was an event at Pittsfield City Hall on child abuse awareness. Eighty-nine children's shoes were laid out to represent the number of abuse cases each month in Berkshire County's largest city.

A press conference at Pittsfield City Hall on child abuse awareness.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

“It’s hard not to feel something compelling about looking at small shoes,” said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer at the event. “We may not all be professionally trained, [but] what we can do is, we can smile at a child, we can hug a child, listen to that child and believe that child.”

Tyer seemed to echo the principles of the trauma-informed campaign, though she didn't mention it. A spokesperson for the mayor later said she'd be willing to play a more visible role, but that she hadn't been asked.

A spokesperson for Berkshire Health Systems said their chief psychiatrist spoke at an early campaign event -- but the organization has not been involved since.

“It's a culture shift. It's slow education,” said Pittsfield police chief Michael Wynn, who also attended a campaign meeting last year.

“I didn't do anything right away,” Wynn said. “I mean, this isn't something that I just can come back from a community meeting and say, ‘Everybody, stop what you're doing. We're going to change this.’ That would be met with a lot of skepticism.”

But the community discussion got Wynn thinking about the trauma his own officers experience on the job. And out in the field, he's more likely to consider the reasons someone may have committed a crime, from stealing a car to selling drugs. Could it have come from a history of trauma?

“We may know part of their story,” Wynn said, “but we don't know everything that's happened for that person.”

The crux of this whole effort is to keep in mind that experience plays a strong role in how a person feels and acts, so you might as well cut everyone some slack.
Pittsfield, Massachusetts, police chief Michael Wynn.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

Wynn credits this new lens on trauma for one big change: the police department now pays for a social worker to join the officers on many calls that involve a person with mental health problems.

Still, Wynn said it's naive to think officers always have the luxury to be trauma-sensitive.

“If somebody just perpetrated a crime of violence, and we've got them in custody, and victims are being treated, we may be thinking, ‘God, what possibly could have compelled someone to do what they just did?’” Wynn said. “[But] that's not a question that's going to get asked right away.”

Wynn finds crimes related to opioid abuse the hardest to approach with empathy.

“They made a decision to use these substances. They made a decision to victimize their family,” Wynn said. “So to stop, take a step back and say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I, this could happen to anybody's family’ — that takes some effort.”

Missy Tarjick understands that trauma sensitivity has a learning curve.

Tarjick, a social worker and mentor for foster families, adopted six children herself. All of them, she said, suffered emotional or physical trauma in their biological families. And she didn't always know how to handle that.

Missy Tarjick serving a meal to her family at home.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

For instance, when the children first arrived in her home, she used to throw their clothes and linens in the washer to get rid of cigarette smoke. After a few years, she realized that was making them upset.

“If they have a blanket, that sense of smell — that's huge for them to have from home,” she said. “I should not be tossing this blanket into the washer to take that away from them. That was the only thing they had.”

Those small moments of revelation have made her think she'd like to see more information come from the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF). That's the agency charged with taking children away from abusive or neglectful families and putting them into foster care.

“Foster parents are pretty isolated in many ways. There’s not a lot of support,” Tarjick said. “DCF is overburdened, and their workers have far too many on their caseload, and they're not able to give that kind of individual attention to foster homes.”

DCF declined an interview, but sent a statement:

Understanding the impact of abuse and neglect on a child’s wellbeing is at the core of the daily work of the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Key principles of trauma-informed care are embedded in DCF practice, policy and professional development and guide the planning of interventions. Child welfare involves many partners and the Department collaborates with organizations across the Commonwealth that share our commitment to this treatment approach and offer trainings for child service professionals and foster parents who are vital supports in our efforts to help children heal.

Tarjick has written to elected officials about ways she sees the state actually making trauma worse. She said children are often separated from siblings or bounced around homes of strangers for days. 

And Tarjick said foster parents are not always told what to expect. She met one woman who could not understand why the three-year-old girl in her care was having so many tantrums.

“She was throwing herself on the floor. She was just not able to regulate herself as far as bedtimes, mealtimes. She refused to eat. Then she'd eat too much,” Tarjick said. “The foster parent was exhausted and she was like, ‘Why is she behaving this way?’ And you have to go back again to: why wouldn't she be behaving this way?”

And that's pretty much the crux of this whole effort: to keep in mind that experience plays a strong role in how a person feels and acts, so you might as well cut everyone — kids and adults — some slack.

For her part in the campaign, Tarjick offers to go to schools and businesses herself to tell teachers, employers and community members what trauma really looks like.

Sometimes her offers are welcomed, and sometimes they're ignored.

This story is part of a reporting series on how one community is addressing trauma. Find all the stories here.