'What Happened To You?' A Western Massachusetts County Takes On Trauma

Dec 14, 2018

On a recent afternoon, a half dozen kids — from age two to 16 — were bustling around the Cheshire, Massachusetts, home of Missy and Dave Tarjick, their adoptive parents.

The younger ones were outside on a swingset, in view of the Berkshire mountains.

“I want to go high, Daddy!” the three-year-old girl called out to Dave. “Push me with my feet!”

Dave laughed, with a friendly hesitation. “Your feet are all dirty,” he said.

On the front porch, the older children were getting ready for a soccer game at the high school.

“Can I have $5?” said one of their teenage girls, as Missy took out her wallet. “It’s $3 to get into the game.”

All of them eventually sat down at the family's long wooden table, where Missy served cheeseburger casserole with a ladle. The kids darted to and from the kitchen, joking with each other and their parents.

This certainly seemed like a happy home, and Missy said it is.

But it’s also true that every one of these children has been through wrenching trauma in their young lives. They've all been removed from their biological parents, and put into foster care — which is how the Tarjicks first met them.   

Dave Tarjick pushes his children on swings.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR
A Tarjick family picture.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

"We have to expect that kids are going to fall apart all over the place."
Missy Tarjick

By then, Missy said, the children had endured “significant neglect, substance exposure, (and) significant physical abuse.”

One of the Tarjicks' children didn't know a single word at four years old. Another used to sleep for 22 hours a day. Another was born in withdrawal from the opioids his mother abused.

“We picked him up after a month, and then we had to continue to to wean him with medications at home to prevent seizures, and other things,” Missy said.

In addition to being a foster mother, Missy Tarjick is a social worker. Her own mother was in foster care as a child, and Missy grew up with foster siblings. But being well-versed in childhood stress does not mean her children are spared its effects.

“We have to expect that kids are going to fall apart all over the place,” she said.

When challenging behaviors come out at school, or at friends' homes, or even grocery stores, Tarjick wishes people would refrain from judging her or her kids — and keep in mind what they've been through.

She's not the only one.

“Everybody has a story. I have a story myself,” said Chris Haley, who runs the Berkshire office of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health.

It was Haley’s idea to launch a community-wide campaign called "Trauma-Informed Berkshires." 

The term "trauma-informed" grew, in part, out of a seminal 1998 report called the Adverse Childhood Experience, or ACE, study. It linked poor health in adulthood to the number of adverse experiences you had as a child.

From that study, many people called for a new way of understanding people who'd been through trauma.

“It’s a mindset of thinking, instead of ‘What's wrong with that person?' it's thinking, ‘What's happened to that person?’” said Haley.

Haley learned about this concept from Tarpon Springs, Florida — one of the first cities in the country to officially go “trauma-informed.”

Now, a growing number of communities around the country are using the trauma-informed template to preach empathy, awareness, and patience in a variety of contexts. The goal is to involve everyone in a community, from police to schools to government to nonprofits.

Haley's dream, she said, is to have signs that say, “Welcome to Berkshire County. You're entering a trauma-informed county.”

At the Tarjick home in Cheshire, Massachusetts.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

There’s no reason to think Berkshire County has more cases of trauma than anywhere else, but most places have more trauma than you might realize. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found one third of children reported at least one traumatic event in their life — from sexual abuse to gun violence to divorce. Almost a quarter experienced more than one.

“Trauma… doesn't have to be some giant catastrophe,” said Haley. “It could be being picked on at school. It could be being in multiple car accidents. It could be having an illness.”

It’s worth noting that being trauma-informed is not the same thing as actually treating the effects of trauma.

Whether Berkshire County has enough mental health resources is a fair question. People complain there aren't enough psychiatrists in the mostly rural region. Earlier this year, the Brien Center, a mental health clinic, closed the county's only child psychiatric unit

But this campaign focuses on how the whole community can be more sensitive to its troubled residents — even in a bucolic setting like this one.

Not everyone in Berkshire County has access to its riches

Many visitors to the Berkshires only see its tonied perks, like Tanglewood, the famous outdoor concert venue; or Jacobs Pillow, the dance mecca; or the picturesque hills and vacation homes.

But many residents tell a different story.

“Not everyone in Berkshire County has exposure or access to those riches that we have here,” said Karen Vogel, head of the Berkshire United Way, which is helping lead the trauma-informed campaign.

Vogel said the region has taken some hard economic hits, starting in the late '80s, as two major plants shut down: Sprague Electric in North Adams and General Electric in Pittsfield.

“Those were the jobs you could get out of high school, and get a living wage,” she said. “Those jobs are gone.”

That economic devastation has left a trail of unemployment and under-employment. Vogel said poverty rates have jumped 20 percent in 10 years.

“We know this poverty is causing trauma,” she said. “We have a high opioid use here. We're seeing grandparents raising kids.”

And the distance between towns can lead to social isolation, and difficulty getting to mental health services. According to state data, Berkshire County has among the highest rates of suicide in Massachusetts.

With those factors in mind, Vogel, Haley and others launched the "Trauma-Informed Berkshires" campaign in 2016. Their first step was to invite trauma experts to a packed public gathering at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield.

“What happens to that child who hears gunshots outside their bedroom window?” said Joan Gillece, who works on trauma for a federal health agency and spoke at an early campaign event. “What happens to that child that hears domestic violence in the household?”

Gillece continues to consult for communities around the country that want to become trauma-informed. She urges local institutions, from prisons to libraries to welfare offices, to rethink how they deal with the public.

“How would we change social services — which, oftentimes you go in, and you go through the metal detector, and you're met with oftentimes not the most welcoming receptionist,” Gillece said. “It's almost like you're shamed for being in need. What could we do differently from that first point of contact?”

At least one group in Berkshire County, called Pittsfield Promise, has been meeting to follow up on the expert advice. It's made up of nonprofits and educators, social workers and arts leaders, who brainstorm how to be sensitive to trauma in their organizations and outside the group.

For instance, at a recent meeting, they suggested providing trauma-sensitive books in waiting rooms, or paying close attention to children’s moods during the stress of the holidays, or reaching out to church groups to get involved.

Missy Tarjick serves her family cheeseburger casserole.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

One might think Missy Tarjick — the social worker and foster mom — would be grateful for the trauma-informed campaign. And she is ... to an extent.

“It’s a great initiative,” Tarjick said. “But I've been around to see initiatives come and go, and sometimes there's a lot of talk, and then it dies down a little bit.”

Tarjick said her household is about as trauma-informed as you can get. Her adult biological children have gotten into social work, child advocacy and criminal justice.

“We didn't do it by campaign, obviously,” she said. “We just did it by changing our mindset and opening up our eyes to what's going on.”

The question remains: how to make sure the mindset spreads across the community.

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