How Do We Approach Extreme Trauma?

We often struggle about what to do with cases such as the Penn State scandal about the sexual abuse of children. I truly believe that every investigative measure ought to be pursued to find out what happened and to whom. Locking up the offender will not deal with the trauma and extreme damage that has been caused, even though some in our society are convinced that once the offender is convicted and put in prison the case is over. This is totally contrary to the power of the impact to a traumatized child or adult.

Retribution vs. restoration

We tend to think that if we take retribution on the offender then we have resolved the issue.

We tend to think that if we take retribution on the offender then we have resolved the issue. However, if as a society we take such a narrow and uninformed view of trauma and its impact we will  never comprehensively deal with the issue.

If we could change our way of managing trauma to address restoration rather than retribution, we probably would ask different questions. Different questions would move us towards new ways to help those who have been traumatized. In fact, if we could fundamentally change how we approach instances in which someone has traumatized another person, we may have better success in helping all victims who have been traumatized.

Asking questions that restore the person and family

For instance, consider the emotions of guilt and shame as well as other reactions of the family of a traumatized child. Those feelings significantly impact the entire family’s relationships (with other family members and with others outside the family) years after the trauma has occurred. Without an awareness of this possibility, the family may make the situation far worse for their traumatized child.

Attention to a family’s responses in managing trauma are important to the social responsibility of helping victims.

Dr. Sandy Bloom, who has researched and written substantially about how we can design systems to effectively assist children who have had adverse and/or traumatic experiences, has promoted the Sanctuary Model of providing safe and responsible environments for children. Dr. Bloom gives attention to a family’s responses in managing trauma as she talks about the social responsibility aspect of helping victims.

It is typical that when we investigate severe adverse experiences we approach the situation to find who caused the problem and assess blame and sometimes shame.  We ask questions like: “What laws were broken?” “Who committed the offense?” and “What punishment do they deserve?” These are questions that largely attempt to convict and punish the perpetrator.

In a scenario where we are striving to be restorative, the questions would be different. We would be asking: “Who has been hurt?” “What are the needs of the victim/offender/community?” and “What are the obligations and whose are they?”

Asking these kinds of questions leads to a level of social responsibility that will truly assist with the issues of all who have been impacted. Then with a correct assessment of the situation, treatment and solutions will follow that will comprehensively help heal victims who have suffered tragic events.


Pouting boy
In a trauma scenario where we are striving to be restorative, the questions would be different.

We desperately need changes in our systems to address trauma

If we are to view damaged children and families as stewardship, I believe we will be managing trauma in a way that will offer immediate help for its victims. It is how we may provide them resilience and prevent them from experiencing lifelong implications. Further, we may prevent them from traumatizing others due to the significant level of unaddressed injury within them.

Rather than building prisons, expanding our criminal justice system and overloading our social services systems, it appears to me that we could be far more effective and preventative if we were to take a restorative approach to dealing with traumatized children. I think Dr. Bloom’s idea is one that could change the entire climate of our therapeutic community and truly help our traumatized children and families. It is all about asking the right questions then finding solutions and resources that are appropriate to each specific situation. I recognize that this would be a huge paradigm shift, but it would be one that would approach such devastating issues in a proactive way.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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