By Amanda Coquyt, DC127 Fellow and MSW Candidate
DC127 is hosting a Trauma Informed Care Training on October 6th. This blog explains why trainings like this are so important for volunteers that work with families who may have experienced trauma. Learn more and RSVP for the training here.
When I started as a social worker in the foster care system in 2008, I thought I was going to change the world. I had dreams of connecting with children and families, fixing all of their problems, and knowing what an impact I had on their future as I left them to live happily ever after. Did I mention I had zero experience with the foster system before I got my social work degree? It’s also worth noting that I had led a pretty great life overall. Trauma was a foreign concept that we skimmed over during my brief training to become a case manager. But, I quickly learned that trauma impacts a person from infancy throughout their adult lives. Not only does trauma impact individuals emotionally, but it also impacts behaviors, personalities, and relationships.
Fast forward to 2009. I was a seasoned case manager by that point (it doesn’t take long!) and had one incredibly challenging 16-year-old teenager on my caseload, Melissa. She was confident, intelligent, and outgoing. She was also manipulative, sneaky, and struggling with addiction and depression. While we didn’t start out on the best of terms, Melissa came around and we had a decent rapport. And then she ran away. And then she ran away again. And again. No matter where we placed her, Melissa ran. One day she called and told me she was ready to stay put, but she needed to pick up her things from the location she had been squatting at while on the run. I was so excited! I had finally gotten through!
So, I picked her up and left her at her new foster home with the expectation we would see each other the following week, and I headed home filled with pride at how I had been able to get her to stay put. Sure enough, about 15 minutes after I left I got a phone call from Melissa’s new home- she had run away again, taking all of her belongings with her. I was stunned. How could that happen? I had just done everything Melissa asked, and even stopped at McDonald’s to get her a chicken sandwich! I had been kind and helpful. What more could she want?
That’s when I learned perhaps one of the most important lessons about hurt children. Melissa didn’t do this to damage my pride or waste my time.
She told me she would stay so I would come pick her up from a situation she no longer wanted to be in. She told me she would stay with the condition that her belongings be picked up so I would fit everything into my beat up little car and get her dinner. She did what she had to do to survive. We all cope the best way we know how, and Melissa’s traumatic past had taught her that sometimes you have to manipulate people to get by.
Melissa had been in care since she was 5 years old and was separated from her only sibling. Melissa’s parents had been in and out of her life. Melissa was left to take care of herself the only way she knew how because she couldn’t count on anyone else to do it, at least not for very long. Melissa’s past shaped how she dealt with her present.
I had not suffered any significant trauma before jumping headfirst into child welfare. I certainly didn’t know how to recognize it in others. Even now, all these years later, it’s still easier to react to surface behaviors than to truly dig deeper. Perhaps the best tool I have learned throughout my time as a case manager is to be aware of the possibility that a person could have experienced significant trauma in their lifetime that I may never know about and this trauma affects the way they function in everyday life. Rather than asking why a person is acting a certain way, we need to ask what may have happened in their past to create a need for these behaviors. Recognizing trauma in a person can be very difficult, and understanding it can be time-consuming and exhausting. But the potential positive outcomes can be life-changing. We aren’t here to fix people. We’re here to support hurt children and families in their healing process.
Melissa still calls me. Now 24 years old and a mother, we speak at least weekly (and more often when she’s down on her luck). She doesn’t always like what I have to say or the suggestions I make, but she listens. She isn’t the most financially successful person, but she provides a safe, stable home for her daughter. She may not have a formal education, but she is still one of the most empathetic young women I know. She is being treated for her lifelong mental health issues. She is engaging in counseling to process her lifetime of pain.
Thankfully, for Melissa, her trauma now means a commitment to do things better for her daughter, Shannon.
Amanda grew up in central Florida and worked in the foster care system there for 8 years. She relocated to DC in 2014 and is currently earning her Master’s degree in social work from Catholic University. She’s working with DC127 from May 2016 to December 2016.