Section 1, Chapter 3 (Safety and Wellbeing through Trauma Informed Practice)

(Effective 04/01/19)

Table of Contents

3.1 Social Connectedness

3.2 Stability

3.3 Safety

3.4 Mastery

3.5 Meaningful Access to Relevant Resource

(Adapted from Trauma Informed Pathways to the Five Domains of Wellbeing and the Signs Of Safety Practice With Trauma Informed Pathways To The Five Domains of Wellbeing)

Safety and Wellbeing through Trauma Informed Practice

Trauma interrupts wellbeing and also creates significant barriers to increasing wellbeing for people.  Child welfare staff need to be able to engage parents and children to understand their history, perceptions and needs, and to be active partners in their plan for the future, recognizing that engagement may be influenced by a person’s trauma history.  This engagement requires attention to these core principles of Trauma Informed Care; Safety, Trustworthiness, Choice, Collaboration, and Empowerment while promoting the experience of Wellbeing as families build assets and balance trade- offs in the Five Domains of Wellbeing; Social Connectedness, Safety, Stability, Mastery, and Meaningful Access to Relevant Resources.  Signs of Safety principles and tools support building safety and wellbeing through trauma informed practice.

3.1 Social Connectedness

People with trauma histories may have little trust in people in general, and specifically may not trust anyone with authority.  Trauma affects people’s experiences of power—they can lose all power in relationships and can be afraid of the consequences of asserting themselves.  Power can be seen as always negative.  A trauma history may lead to an individual becoming overly reliant on others, which impacts choices in their relationships.  They may feel shame and stigma that inhibits their sense of belonging or leads them to feel unlovable.  Trauma can impact a person’s ability to accurately identify and respond to social cues.  The models people experience as children for how relationships “work” often determine their expectations for future relationships.  For example, a person who grew up in a home with domestic violence may, in adulthood, experience the same relational pattern. 


Trauma Informed Steps to Enhance Social Connectedness


Approach our relationships with an emphasis on honesty, trustworthiness and collaboration

  • Intentionally build trust with the family and children.
  • Only make commitments/promises that we are positive we can meet.
  • Ask for someone’s opinion to signal their perspective matters.  
  • Be aware that trauma can change how people read social cues and adjust our interactions.
  • Recognize how our own histories of trauma may influence how we perceive power, relationships, and belonging.
  • Trauma survivors may need additional help and support.

Understand and honor, as much as possible, how children and families meet their needs for social connectedness

  • Strive to understand the role certain people or relationships play in meeting the child’s or family’s needs and consider the impact of placing restrictions on these relationships.
  • Be aware that someone we see as an abusive partner, parent, pimp, or trafficker may be an important social connection.
  • Make sure that our relationship with a family is not a stand-in for other social connections.
  • Be aware of how a child or family meets their need for belonging.
  • Be aware of who a child and family relies on and who relies on them.
  • Be aware of relationships beyond immediate family or really strong ties.

Be aware of the cost of change

  • Help families identify the costs and barriers to creating social connections and provide real support in addressing them.
  • Be sensitive to the tradeoffs a family may have to make to change their social connections and help them minimize those tradeoffs.
  • Recognize that making new friends or trying new relational patterns may bring up old feelings of worthlessness or shame.
  • Know that simply expecting people to start trusting others or to change their patterns of relationships is not realistic.

Be careful not to add new trauma

  • Recognize that removing a child from a family may be necessary for safety, but needs to be done in a way that doesn’t take away assets in other domains when we’re also taking away a relationship.
  • Be careful not to talk about biological parents in ways that make a child feel they have to pick between loyalty to their family or loyalty to foster parents or CD.
  • Pay extra attention to situations that may feel like loss to a child in foster care.
  • Recognize that trauma survivors may have been punished for not being perfect; allowing them to make mistakes is important.

The following Signs of Safety Practice principles support trauma informed practice when considering social connectedness: 

  • Respect service recipients as people worth doing business with;
  • Cooperate with the person, not the abuse;
  • Recognize all families have signs of safety;
  • Learn what the service recipient wants.

Tools, methods, and practices that are used to enhance social connectedness:

  • Three columns mapping guided by the questioning approach is the primary way that staff meaningfully connect with families.  When facilitating three columns mapping staff should pay very close attention to the words people are using and capture and share those words on paper so the family can see them.  This helps create transparency and builds trust.  
  • Three columns mapping conversations helps families identify existing social connections and strengthen them for the sake of the child’s safety and wellbeing.
  • The Safety Circles tool helps families identify social connections on a continuum and think through the benefits, costs, and barriers of those connections.
  • A key step in the Signs of Safety safety planning process is helping the family identify and build strong support networks.  The focus on building a natural network is important to long-term success and safety.  Networks are specifically focused around supporting the family toward the safety and wellbeing goals of their children.  Staff should allow everyone identified by the family to be a useful safety network person.
  • Use the monitoring phase of the safety planning process to build relational resilience in children.

3.2 Stability

When people know what to expect, they then feel better prepared or more empowered to handle that situation, decreasing their anxiety.  Trauma affects a person’s sense of predictability.  Surviving trauma often means having very specific routines that help the person create safety.  Staff should recognize the importance of these practices even if they may seem trivial as they may allow the individual/ family to get through the day.  For many people missing an anchor feels unsettling.  For a trauma survivor, it can feel dangerous, so their reactions to missing an anchor can be even more heightened.  Trauma survivors often have excellent mechanisms for assessing when one small hiccup is going to snowball into a huge problem.  This can look like “hyper vigilance” when a person is no longer being traumatized, but it has been important for keeping things stable in other circumstances.


Trauma Informed Steps to Enhance Stability

Increasing predictability and minimizing surprises

  • Openly share all information and help prepare the child and/or family for every new event, activity or change.
  • Work with biological and resource parents on the importance of predictability in children’s lives, and help parents think about where they can create predictability even when there is chaos.
  • Only use “unannounced visits” when absolutely necessary.

Understand and honor, as much as possible, how children and families meet their needs for stability

  • Be aware of what a child’s anchors are and work with resource parents to keep these in place during placement transitions.  
  • Be aware that routines of staying safe may become anchors, and be careful of disrupting these for children and adults.
  • Identify family’s patterns, even if they are patterns that are dangerous or destructive.
  • Recognize that biological parents have important information about stability.

Be aware of the cost of change

  • Talk with families about what it will take for them to participate in new events.
  • Break things down into really small, manageable steps.
  • Ask children and parents about what has happened when they’ve made changes in the past.
  • Know that change for children and families means breaking patterns.

Be careful not to add new trauma

  • Support change by keeping as many anchors and as much predictability as possible.
  • Help people name what is staying the same when a lot is changing.
  • Recognize the cascading changes that happen when a child transitions from placement to placement.
  • Focus on providing detailed information to placement providers, and discuss how needs will be met prior to placing the child.

The following Signs of Safety Practice principles support trauma informed practice when considering stability:

  • Recognize that all families have “signs of stability”;
  • Focus on creating small change.

Tools, methods, and practices that are used to enhance stability:

  • Three columns mapping conversations allow for consistency in the way staff relate with families.
  • Scaling questions to break things down into small steps.
  • Case trajectories help families know what to expect. The trajectory breaks things down into small manageable steps.
  • Use questions when safety planning that help the family identify patterns that lead to the worrisome behaviors (triggers) along with patterns that keep the good stuff going (signs things are going well and prevention plans).
  • During the monitoring stage of safety planning, the agency works with families and their networks to establish new routines for how the family, with the support of the safety network, will live their day-to-day lives to ensure child safety and wellbeing.
  • Safety plans should be practiced and rehearsed so everyone can see that they will be used and will work to keep the children safe. Before testing safety plans, permission is sought from the family and network so there are no surprises and so the family and network are fully informed.
  • The purpose of unannounced visits or check ins should be made clear to families in advance. It’s an opportunity for everyone to see how the safety plan is working and to draw out all of the details of how they are doing this.
  • Preparation with families in all aspects of the work is important.  Keeping families fully informed and involved creates a sense of stability.

 3.3 Safety

For families involved in the child welfare system, a perception of being judged negatively is frequently present whether they were the perpetrator or unable to provide for their child’s safety. An individual’s trauma history can directly impact their feelings of safety with others and within their environment.  When people do not feel safe, this raises their anxiety, which creates a physical reaction that can lead to being behaviorally or emotionally dysregulated or out of control.  People acting from a place of fear will often make decisions that they would not make if they were calmer.  Trauma survivors may have strong reactions to people in positions of authority and power.  If they do not have models of the appropriate, safe and supportive use of power, they may have difficulty experiencing power positively.  Staff should create a safe relationship and safe spaces for the family and children to try new things and progress.


Trauma Informed Steps to Enhance Safety

Recognizing that what is safe for one person may not be safe for another

  • Be open and appreciative of different cultures and identities and recognize that someone may have been targeted in the past for a core part of their identity.
  • Intentionally explore LGBTQ issues and attitudes among resource parents, particularly those who foster adolescents.  Adolescents who are LGBTQ or are questioning their sexuality should be placed in a family and in a community where it is safe to have that identity.  This is not limited to LGBTQ issues but other issues such as race, spirituality, ethnicity, etc.
  • Be curious, not judgmental, when someone expresses that they feel more or less safe than we feel is warranted.  

Understand and honor, as much as possible, how children and families meet their needs for safety

  • Recognize that what may be seen as a negative behavior may actually be the person’s way of regaining a sense of safety.
  • Ask the child and family what made them feel unsafe and what they do to feel safe.
  • Recognize that to some people, maintaining a sense of a lack of safety is what keeps them safe.
  • Explore boundary issues with the placement provider and child prior to placement.
  • Allow parents and children to pick where they sit at a table or a meeting so that they have more control and choice.

Be aware of the cost of change

  • Understand trigger responses as part of how people meet their need for safety.
  • Work to help children feel safer during change.
  • Work with resource parents to understand how a child felt safe and if that is not appropriate in the resource family’s home, create a plan for transitioning from that strategy into using another strategy.

Be careful not to add new trauma

  • Remember how much language and labels matter.
  • Recognize not only the child’s safety, but also how the child is focused on others’ safety.
  • Be mindful and intentional in helping parents cope with the reality when their child has been abused.

The following Signs of Safety Practice principles support trauma informed practice when considering safety:

  • Respect service recipients as people worth doing business with;
  • Cooperate with the person, not the abuse;
  • Maintain a focus on safety;
  • Learn what the service recipient wants;
  • Do not confuse case details with judgements;
  • Offering choices;
  • Treat the interview as a forum for change.

Tools, methods, and practices that are used to enhance safety:

  • Allow families and their networks the opportunity to think through how they can keep the children safe, even if that means a worrisome behavior, which may be a trauma-induced coping skill, needs to continue for a parent to feel safe.
  • Safety plan with the safety network for specific triggers, red flags, and prevention planning and help the person and their network plan alternative behaviors.
  • Words and Pictures Explanation can help mitigate the long-term trauma by creating a shared and consistent explanation of the family situation.  The process of developing a Words and Pictures Explanation that is honest and without blame frequently helps parents work through the shame they often carry related to their own trauma.
  • Solution-focused questions, EARS questioning, and the Family Risk Assessment framework are used together to uncover and build understanding about the details behind negative as well as positive behaviors.

3.4 Mastery

Individuals with trauma histories often feel helpless and/or hopeless.  They may have been, or perhaps still are, in relationships or situations that did not allow them to build a sense of mastery because they had little control or choice.  When they do not feel a sense of control and choice, trauma survivors may create opportunities to have control and choice.  Trauma impacts people’s ability to cope with anxiety and extreme stress, and some people harm themselves through cutting or other practices to re-center themselves and feel a sense of control over their thoughts and to release anxiety.  Trauma survivors may be particularly sensitive to situations where they feel like they have no control or choice.  They may feel cornered, or without options, and may react strongly to try to regain some sense of control or choice.  Mastery requires practice and sometimes false starts, but a trauma survivor may have been punished or hurt for making mistakes in the past and may feel afraid to take risks necessary for change.


Trauma Informed Steps to Enhance Mastery

Helping a person feel control and choice as much as possible, and being prescriptive only when absolutely necessary

  • Collaborate with someone to set and achieve goals, rather than just setting goals for them.
  • Provide practical support to children and families in helping them achieve their goals and cope with setbacks.
  • Help a person who feels they have no options identify if there are, in fact, options, even if they choose not to take them.
  • Teach older youth to facilitate their own Family Support Team meetings.
  • Remember mastery requires practice, and help trauma survivors see where they have made progress even if there is still a long way to go.
  • Teach people how to think through choices and tradeoffs while they still have a supportive safety net.
  • Understand the child’s emotional maturity may not match their cognitive, physical, or chronological level.
  • Support children and teens in getting involved in extracurricular activities and celebrate their progress, not just their successes.
  • Break down service plans into smaller pieces so people see themselves making progress.

Be aware of the cost of change

  • Help people obtain new, adaptive skills for coping before they let go of old ones.
  • Help people prepare for situations where they may have less control and choice.
  • Realize the behavior a parent may need to change may be how they meet their need for mastery.

Be careful not to add new trauma

  • Giving children options when possible can help avoid triggers around touch and increase choice.
  • Recognize that adolescents’ behavior can be driven by a sense of mastery and some boundary pushing is normal and appropriate.

The following Signs of Safety Practice principles support trauma informed practice when considering mastery:

  • Learn what the service recipient wants;
  • Offer choices;
  • Treat the interview as a forum for change;
  • Focus on creating small change.

Tools, methods, and practices that are used to enhance mastery:

  • Collaboration with the family in thinking their way into and through the Family Risk Assessment map, especially in relation to safety goals and next steps, builds hope and confidence.
  • Mapping and purposeful questioning are used to understand triggers and purpose behind adaptive coping skills.
  • The case specific scaling question is used throughout the work with the family to measure progress, recognize, and celebrate small changes and in helping the family and network think through the smallest next steps to take in moving toward a greater sense of mastery in keeping children safe.  
  • Develop the safety plan with the family.  Their ideas about what works drives the planning process every step of the way.  Through this process, families are empowered to take positive control over their and their children’s futures.
  • Case Trajectories help break down our work together into small achievable steps and can help create a sense of hope knowing what will change when the small steps are achieved.
  • As soon as possible, it is important to identify a safety network of friends and family to help parents achieve their goals through practical support in day-to-day life.  It is important that any challenges or setbacks be approached as opportunities to refine and strengthen the plan to achieve greater mastery in the context of demonstrating child safety.
  • It is critical that responsibility be transferred to the safety network (leading meeting, addressing concerns, checking in, etc.) so they can achieve mastery in their role (i.e. helping ensure the children are safe) prior to case closure.  
  • Mastery requires practice. During the safety planning process, tests and practices of the safety plan are needed in order for the family, network and professionals to build confidence.
  • Through the repetitive use of three columns mapping, families, and networks learn this method for thinking through choices and tradeoffs in a structured and balanced way.
  • When services are utilized, workers purposefully ask questions that connect what the person is learning in the service to meaningful change in their daily lives that directly impact child safety.  The service is not the end but the means to the end and practitioners use their solution-focused questioning skills to help parents and families assess the actual impact of the service on improving child safety.

3.5 Meaningful Access to Relevant Resources

Individuals with a trauma history may experience barriers to access that others cannot see or easily recognize.  Trauma is experienced differently by everyone and therefore, trauma triggers are personal to individuals.  Trauma survivors can be triggered by smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and other things others may not notice or may find annoying.  Although a relevant resource exists, it may not be accessible to someone with a trauma history as it is to someone else.  For example, a survivor of domestic violence may need a counseling resource provided in a particular office, but fears going to an appointment because it is the only counseling office in her small town and her abuser was also instructed to attend counseling.  Although she may be safe in that public setting, her past trauma prevents meaningful access to that resource because it is too difficult to overcome her fear.  Some trauma survivors are aware of their sensitivities and trauma triggers and others are not.  Even when someone isn’t able to describe exactly what is triggering, symptoms of physical and emotional stress can be clues that a barrier to access exists, and other options or additional strategies to meet their needs may be needed


Trauma Informed Steps to Enhance Access to Meaningful Resources

Working to make access meaningful

  • Help parents find people in their social networks to accompany them to appointments, shopping for food, or other things that they do not feel safe to do on their own.
  • Help parents negotiate meetings with professionals.
  • Validate the child’s or family’s experience with the resource.

Be aware of the cost of change

  • Be aware of competing demands and priorities if we ask people to spend time or money on something.
  • Understand the tradeoffs a parent was balancing in not addressing their children’s needs through services.

Be careful not to add new trauma

  • Do not shame someone for being afraid to access a resource because of their trauma response.
  • Take people’s triggers seriously and do not label them as excuses.
  • Be knowledgeable about and develop relationships with providers in order to assure the quality of the services.
  • Making a referral or recommendation without knowing the service undermines trust and collaboration. Understand the provider’s knowledge related to trauma and the cultural needs. 

The following Signs of Safety Practice principles support trauma informed practice when considering access to meaningful resources:

    • Learn what the service recipient wants;
    • Offer choices;
    • Treat the interview as a forum for change;
    • Maintain a focus on safety.

Tools, methods, and practices that are used to enhance access to meaningful resources:

  • The most meaningful resources a family can have or develop are natural people in their lives who care about the children.  Safety networks create social connectedness and meaningful access to resources.  Since parents and families are allowed to choose who is in their network, they have a high degree of self-determination.  Instead of a group of professionals becoming the long-term support for the family, workers help facilitate building a strong safety network who act as the long-term resource for the family and their needs
  • Resources are relevant when the family is able to share what is most important to them and what they need and when the resources contribute to change that increases safety, wellbeing, stability and success.
  • When services and resources are utilized, there is particular attention paid to how that resource or service is addressing the worries and actually increasing safety and/or wellbeing.