‘Why are we waiting for them to fall apart?’ – working towards a trauma-informed West Yorkshire and world

Reflections on a well-attended multi-agency event to consider ‘What would a Trauma-Informed Community look like?’

Despite the brilliant blue of the Autumn sky and the vibrant atmosphere of the bustling college campus outside, I found myself genuinely excited to settle down for an afternoon in a darkened lecture theatre among over 130 colleagues in Bradford one Tuesday during early October.

Organised in part to mark Safeguarding Week – and falling coincidentally just two weeks after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published a report revealing that people abused in childhood are more likely to be abused as adults – the time could not have been more apt for professionals across a range of sectors to come together to consider what a trauma-informed society could look like.

Introduced by Yasmin Khan, CEO of specialist domestic abuse charity Staying Put and co-founder of new initiative I-RAP: Giving Every Child a Voice, the event used the ground-breaking, breath-taking and award-winning short film RESILIENCE: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope to kick-start participants’ thinking and discussion. And that it most certainly did.

RESLIENCE Director James Redford (son of actor Robert, if you’re interested in that sort of thing), has said his intention in creating the film was ‘to make this science digestible and relevant to everyone, and to showcase some of the inspiring individuals who are putting that science into action’, and he’s undeniably achieved both.

The science he refers to of course is neuroscience, specifically around the impacts of childhood trauma and toxic stress on our brain development and wider health. When the first research into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) was published nearly 20 years ago, its findings about the strong links with long-term health issues – ranging from depression and substance misuse to heart disease and cancer – were considered controversial.

But now the effects of ACEs are widely recognised and RESILIENCE shines a light on the movement of inspirational doctors, social workers, educators and communities committed to reducing and preventing their individual and societal impacts – a movement that is gathering momentum in the United States, and, as it turns out, on this side of the Atlantic too.

Dr Warren Larkin is the Clinical Lead for our own Department of Health’s ACEs programme, as well as a consultant clinical psychologist and visiting professor at Sunderland University.

While my fellow attendees and I continued to absorb the powerful hour-long film, he led us through a presentation of key research findings – from Bellis et al and the World Health Organisation (WHO) among others – about the prevalence and impact of ACEs, and told us what’s happening closer to home to address them.

Among the striking studies he highlighted was one carried out by Kessler et al on behalf of the WHO in 2010, involving 52,000 participants, which found a staggering correlation between the incidence of a whole range of mental health problems and the number of ACEs a person had encountered.

Dr Larkin stressed that ‘waiting to be told’ about adverse childhood experiences doesn’t work, and he wasn’t the first or last person to remind the room that the question we should be asking of people is not ‘what’s wrong with you?’ but ‘what happened to you?’

It was with this very much at the forefront of our minds that we progressed to the question and answer panel chaired by former Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North West of England, Nazir Afzal OBE, renowned among many things for his work on the child sexual exploitation case in Rochdale (and portrayed in this year’s widely acclaimed BBC television drama Three Girls).

Panel members themselves represented a true wealth and diversity of knowledge and expertise in the specialist fields of domestic abuse and sexual violence, and included: Bob Balfour, founder of Survivors West Yorkshire and Ben’s Place and co-host of the event itself; Jane Gregory, Co-ordinator of Bradford Rape Crisis, Trustee of Rape Crisis England & Wales, and member of both the Bradford and West Yorkshire Domestic & Sexual Violence Strategic Boards, as well as a colleague of Bob’s in the specialist West Yorkshire Sexual Violence Action Partnership (WYSVAP); Shabana Hussain, fellow member of the West Yorkshire Domestic Violence & Sexual Violence Strategic Board and Service Manager at Staying Put (Bradford); Duncan Craig, core founder of the Male Survivors’ Partnership (MSP) and CEO of Survivors Manchester.

There was a lot of energy among the audience in the tiered seating of the lecture theatre as they considered the overarching question, ‘what would a trauma-informed community look like?’ and fed the panellists’ discussion.

After a brief introduction from Nazir, during which he reminded attendees that sexually exploited girls in Rochdale and elsewhere were targeted by abusers precisely because they were traumatised, specialist midwife Rachel asked the first question from the floor: ‘How does the panel think being part of a survivors’ movement builds resilience?’

This prompted some vital discussion of how grassroots, community-based and survivor-focussed specialist agencies have provided safe and trauma-informed spaces for decades, albeit using different language to describe their work with survivors. And Jane Gregory voiced the understandable frustration that it has taken ‘men in suits with scientific qualifications’ to repackage and present what survivors and those who work on the frontline with them have been saying for years for it to be taken seriously.

This chimed with the concerns of Jo, a Rape Crisis ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advocate) I spoke with in a break who felt that none of the research findings on the scale and impacts of childhood trauma on, for example, adult survivors of child sexual abuse, came as a surprise to her as a frontline worker, but that the medicalised language of ACEs wasn’t compatible with the holistic and empowering approach of a feminist service like hers. Jo also feared that the scientific approach threatened to dehumanise and reduce survivors’ to an ACE score that didn’t reflect the diversity and individuality of their lives or experiences.

But while it was clear that more progress needed to be made towards finding a common language to ensure survivors and those working with them and in their interests could be, as Jane put it ‘mutually understood’, it was clear that panellists and audience shared so much in terms of values and objectives, beyond any differences of approach.

Bob Balfour, for example, voiced his optimism that ACEs could provide a pathway to new understanding of how we deal with a whole range of social problems, but was also clear of the need to be extremely careful in how the science is applied, to ensure it’s never turned against those it should be able to help and support. He also pointed out how the US has managed to situate its conversations about childhood trauma and toxic stress in the community itself, rather than simply among scientists and academics.

Duncan Craig also echoed the need to find a mutual language, and to start hearing the voices of survivors and activists who’ve been talking about the impacts of childhood abuse for so long, while stressing that enabling healing from trauma is a joint social responsibility for us all, and reminding us that ‘abuse happens in isolation, healing happens together.’

And this last point really summarised an area on which there was real consensus among those present; that addressing the impacts of trauma needed a global approach. Julie, from teaching support services, who wanted to shout about her learning at the event from the rooftops, was with Dr Larkin in advocating a whole school approach, while Bob conjured the image of a fully trauma-informed community, and Rachel and Duncan talked of ‘trauma-informed cities’ where everyone from midwives to dentists were trained and prepared to help people ‘build buffers to deal with trauma’ and above all avoid re-traumatisation.

There was also a recurrent and important theme of prevention among participants – the reminder that not only must we address the impacts of trauma but also its causes; that it’s not enough simply to treat the outcomes of adverse experiences like sexual abuse, we must also do all we can to prevent them. This was all the more poignant against the backdrop of the unprecedented and ever-increasing demand for services highlighted by Shabana Hussain and Jane Gregory, among others, that the latter attributed to ‘a stunning epidemic of sexual violence.’

Overall, there was food for thought aplenty and I definitely left full. In terms of take-home messages, it was impossible to pick just one. But Yasmin Khan’s final assertion that austerity must no longer be used as an excuse for inaction won’t be forgotten in a hurry, and nor will Bob’s belief that ‘partnership is the only way we’re ever going to deal with trauma.’

Katie Russell

Freelance Journalist and Charity Development Consultant


*  special thanks to Cohen Cramer Solicitors for sponsoring this article