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Four girls walking and talking in Central Texas

The science of trauma-informed care

Guest Author: Tara Powdrill

We met Isabella* at the Center for Child Protection (the Center) on a sunny Texas summer morning. As most kids in Travis County were gearing up for pool days or baseball, we knew that Isabella was instead coming to tell us about a violent crime she had witnessed.

In 2018, more than 1,500 Travis County children like Isabella walked into the Center to tell their stories of abuse, and the trauma they have experienced. Their stories are central to the investigations conducted into those crimes. Together with law enforcement, the Center works to conduct interviews, provide therapy, and facilitate medical care for children who have experienced abuse or witnessed crimes.

While some children can benefit from the support they receive, others suffer from developmental trauma that impacts current patterns, choices and functioning, which can cause them to struggle to attend school, face difficulties getting placed in foster care, and are therefore significantly more likely to run away and be in danger of homelessness, human trafficking, and further victimization. Like Isabella on that summer day, many children are fearful and angry – and don’t have a way to express or channel their fear or anger.

Teaching New Patterns for Change

To help change the negative patterns of behavior, emotions, and ideas that are created by trauma during childhood, we are working with children to teach new patterns. Neuroscience teaches us that trauma can be addressed, especially when the brain is still young. We do this at the Center by implementing a Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT).

NMT uses the principles of neurobiology to guide assessment and treatment planning for children whose development has been disrupted by trauma. For example, if a child is living in survival mode and is in a fight, flight, or freeze state, treatment activities work to decrease the child’s alarm state to a calm state.  If a child’s baseline functioning can move from alarm to calm, they will be much more successful in the classroom and in relationships with others.

The Center uses the NMT Metric to collect information about the child’s history of adverse experiences to create an estimate of the potential impact on brain development. Once developmental risks have been identified, the NMT Metric guides treatment planning. Additionally, every six months clients receive a follow up metric to show progress and where to continue to target treatment for successful outcomes.

Individualized Healing

Treatment and therapy at the Center is not – and cannot be – a one-size-fits-all approach. Every child is different, so the way they experience and heal from trauma is also different. Clinical activities can include individual and family therapy, experiential therapy like sensory gyms, trauma-informed yoga, drum groups, and much more. What’s unique about NMT is that the assessment also addresses the child’s entire system of care and includes collaboration with teachers, childcare workers, and other service providers to ensure that therapeutic experiences are woven into all parts of the child’s life.

While NMT is not a specific therapeutic technique or intervention, it is an evidence-based approach that allows the Center to truly focus on each child as an individual and help them address not only their challenges, but elevate their strengths, as well.

* Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Tara Powdrill is the director of marketing and communications for the Center for Child Protection. The Center for Child Protection is a nationally accredited children’s advocacy center and the only nonprofit in Travis County involved in the investigation and prosecution of crimes against children. For 30 years, the Center has been the first stop for children in Travis County who are suspected victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse and for children who have witnessed a violent crime. The Center is a child-friendly, specially-equipped facility where children go for recorded forensic interviews, medical exams, counseling and intervention. All services are provided to children and their protective caregivers free of charge and are available in English and Spanish. In 2018, the Center conducted forensic interviews for 1,557 children. For more information, visit www.centerforchildprotection.org.