Could a Trauma-Responsive Environment Prevented This Tragedy?

The results were just released to the parent of a 7-year-old who died of “positional asphyxia” as a result of being restrained or possibly disciplined at Brooklawn residential facility in Louisville, Kentucky. The tragic death of Ja’Ceon Terry happened in July of this year and the details of his death have just been released publicly. The family was shocked at what happened and have launched a lawsuit for financial and emotional damages. Two staff members have been released from duties as a result of the death.

Obviously, this should never have happened and investigations will ensue. There are all kinds of rumors and/or allegations about how children have been treated in this facility and I’m sure there will be a comprehensive review. I am also sure that the staff are devastated by this loss and that morale will be at an all-time low. This traumatizes the staff, the family and anyone affected by this type of incident. 

There is still so much to learn about this situation. I am sure the investigations will yield some new evidence about how this occurred. Like most facilities there has been training about de-escalation techniques and proper restraints. Residential treatment facilities are in difficult situations because of the 24/7 care they provide. It requires a staff that is trained, equipped, supervised and prepared for all kinds of difficult behaviors. Yet, residential facilities are often understaffed and stressed with situations emerging that threaten the health and safety of the children in their care. Also sometimes staff feel equally threatened and resort to strategies that are not within the values of the organization.

This is in no way a statement of tolerating what happened in this case. Rather I am more passionate than ever that staff training in residential facilities needs to go beyond after-the-fact de-escalation and restraint techniques. We need to create trauma-responsive environments where staff are neurologically trained to understand the impact of trauma, the many ways needed to help children regulate and avoid re-triggering some of the emotions and behaviors that brought them into care in the first place. 

Regulating this behavior begins when a child is first exposed to their new environment. It is about safety, listening, communication, tolerance and giving them the power to express their angst in healthy ways. We have seen here at Lakeside that the physical, emotional and relational environment we create significantly reduces conflict, anger and violent behavior.  Even having a trained therapy dog gives children a way to calm themselves and connect to something that is safe for them.

What I am advocating for is that we mandate trauma informed and trauma responsive training to all staff in facilities that care for children and adolescents. Policies, practices and procedures need to reflect that training, particularly in the area of conflict resolution, discipline and regulation techniques. This type of training and implementation can prevent most of the behaviors that are difficult to manage. We are helping children regulate their emotions which often lead to the behaviors that cause angst and frustration to the staff. Certainly not every situation will be prevented but having staff equipped with a lens for trauma. But it can certainly help to maximize their capacity to facilitate a calm and regulated environment for both staff and the children they serve.

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