We see it all the time in our work with clients. An adult with significant childhood trauma lives in a state of persistent threat. She struggles to metabolize the imprints from an unfortunate early history that wreaks havoc on her efforts to maintain healthy relationships and seek a fulfilling life. How might her life have unfolded if trauma had been identified much earlier?
The case for childhood trauma leading all-to-often to symptoms of traumatic response in adults is increasingly documented. Dr. Bruce Perry— a teacher, clinician, and researcher in neuroscience and children's mental health— has published evidence that brain development is interrupted at the point when childhood trauma begins (click for a free copy of the 2009 study). The mammoth Adverse Childhood Experiences study conducted by Kaiser Permanente showed that childhood trauma may predispose someone to adult onset chronic disease and mental illness. About two thirds of the 17,000 adults in the ACE study had experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences. The more adverse childhood experiences, the higher the risk.
Thankfully, such awareness is rising. In July of 2013 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) took a step to bolster recognition for the connection between childhood trauma and poor outcomes for children. An official guidance issued by the agency mandates trauma-informed programs in child welfare agencies. The 17-page document requires child trauma screening and well-being measurements. Additionally, it recognizes that a transition to a trauma-informed approach requires that interventions be tailored to meet individual needs. This official guidance opens new funding streams to support trauma screening, outcome assessment, and implementation of so-called “evidence-based” interventions for trauma healing.
While the case is still being made for Somatic Experiencing® to be included within such evidence-based interventions, we practitioners know that SE® often offers trauma survivors a sense of greater ease and a new beginning. It can provide an opportunity to recover a sense of freedom and agency. As someone who has seen its benefits first hand, I can't help but wonder: What if more children were able to receive the benefits of SE to help them return to healthy development? What if SE could become a force in child welfare?
I have been fortunate enough to test these very questions, along with my fellow SE practitioner, Jerry Allen. We were both very pleased when decision makers at Sonoma County's Child Protective Services division were willing to invest in SE. Their support for our pilot program allowed us to create an effective program for caregivers, earning SE an official designation as an “emerging practice.”
The HHS mandate increases the possibility that more child welfare decision makers will embrace emerging trauma-focused interventions like SE. I encourage other SE practitioners to take steps to entice their local welfare departments by explaining the nervous system physiology that is the basis of SE's effectiveness. We all know, experientially, what fight, flight, and freeze feel like. A clear explanation of SE resonates deeply for many people because it acknowledges inherent health in our response to difficult occurrences. It shines a light on the confusing behaviors that trauma survivors can exhibit. But there is still much work to do here in the Somatic Experiencing community.
This July's HHS mandate prefers so-called “evidence-based” practices, and while we practitioners have abundant first-hand experience in the potential effectiveness of these techniques, SE is still building up our array of scientific evidence to meet the government's requirements. Our conundrum is: “How to fund studies to create that SE evidence base?” For starters, we need substantially more SE practitioners interested in and skilled at working directly with children. Are you one of those people? Consider the satisfaction of helping a young person ease her sense of isolation and recover a feeling of hope before she becomes an adult.
We need to continue specialized SE training for this arena. Trauma's tentacles extend far and wide into the health and wellbeing of children. As just one example, a 2001 study indicated that 90 percent of foster care kids have trauma exposure. More and more service providers— including medical professionals, social services workers, and teachers— are recognizing the impact of childhood trauma on the adults we serve. I hope more of my colleagues will join me in viewing this new HHS guidance as an opportunity unfolding for us all.
Author Suzie Gruber, M.A., holds advanced degrees in chemistry and psychology. She spent 15 years in biotechnology before returning to her first love, helping people transform their lives. A Somatic Experiencing Practitioner in private practice in Sebastopol, California, Suzie leads workshops that help people become trauma informed while piloting an effort to apply SE to the child welfare setting.