A System of Care for Traumatized Children

March 15, 2017


Authored by:
The Honorable Ramona Gonzalez
La Crosse County Circuit Court, Wisconsin
Board Dir​ector, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Sally is a seven-year-old girl who just disclosed physical abuse to her teacher. Over the next few days, Sally must relate her story multiple times to a social worker, an attorney, a foster parent, a police officer, and a judge. Each time she recounts her abuse, she spends the entire day unable to concentrate, and at night has she bad dreams preventing her from sleeping. By the end of the week, Sally is exhausted. She has barely slept, her grades are falling, and she is beginning to wonder why she spoke about the abuse in the first place.    

Sally’s story happens all too frequently for youth who disclose abuse. Complex confidentiality systems can isolate or “silo” information, even when statutory sharing mechanisms are available. Professionals from different agencies often conduct their own investigation, only to find exactly the same information from the same victimized child. Being forced to relive abuse day after day is re-traumatizing and confusing for children, exacerbating trauma symptoms. Virtually everyone who has worked in the child abuse field acknowledges that there must be a better way to help children in need.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and is an opportunity to highlight a system of care for those children victimized and traumatized by abuse. In Montana, a collaborative team (the Linking Systems of Care Committee) and in Virginia (the Partner Agency Team) is involved in The Linking Systems of Care for Children and Youth Demonstration project funded by the Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Victims of Crime. This unique project is designed to provide or coordinate prevention and intervention services to youth and families experiencing trauma and victimization, and to build capacity within communities to meet the needs of youth exposed to violence. At the heart of this project is the idea that all systems of care are connected and in order to be effective, they need to create a common vocabulary, share information, and create seamless and equitable access to victims.

The states of Montana and Virginia are working to develop a groundbreaking common-use screening tool to identify victimized youth whenever they interact with a system of care and refer them to needed services. Identification and referral of child victims is extremely important in these demonstration sites. More importantly, the common use of a screening tool illustrates that opportunities for healing occur at all points of contact, and by investing in common screening and assessment, systems of care can reduce the duplicative and redundant investigation that often re-traumatize victimized youth.

Using the guiding principles of the Linking Systems of Care Demonstration Project, Sally would have been screened for victimization immediately upon disclosure, and the subsequent intervention for Sally would avoid processes and practices that re-traumatize her, like telling her story repeatedly. Sally’s services would have been strength-based, holistic, and focused on resilience. Rather than treating Sally’s case as a vignette, her judge would also take into account the life-course perspective of victimization and trauma, and consider trauma experienced across lifespans and generations, including historical and structural trauma and racism. Finally, it would hold systems of care accountable to each other, and to the families the system serves.

To many of my colleagues in the judiciary, social services, and allied professions, this sounds like the better way to help victims. Healing happens when systems of care offer coordinated treatment and create the opportunity to make positive social-emotional connections and provide for self-determination. This is the “what” Linking Systems of Care is, the chance to build capacity within the communities of Montana and Virginia to meet the needs of youth exposed to violence. If you are interested in how you can become involved in this project, visit the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges at http://www.ncjfcj.org.