Q&A: Elena Cohen from the Safe Start Center on Trauma-Informed Approaches to Helping Young People

Elena Cohen

Funded by the Department of Justice, the Safe Start Center is a national resource center that disseminates information about the impacts of exposure to violence on children and their families and works to promote trauma-informed care. We spoke with Elena Cohen, who directs the Safe Start Center, to find out more about how youth service providers can use a trauma-informed approach to helping young people. 

NCFY: Why is it important for service providers to take a trauma-informed approach?

Elena Cohen: As demonstrated by the recent National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence (NatSCEV), children are exposed to violence and other traumatic events every day in their homes, schools, and communities. They may be struck by a boyfriend, bullied by a classmate, or abused by an adult. They may witness an assault on a parent or a shooting on the street.

History of exposure to violence is prevalent in programs for runaway and homeless youth, domestic violence shelters, and teen pregnancy prevention and home visiting programs. Research and program experiences clearly demonstrate that traumatic events impact how children understand their experiences, whether developmental tasks are achieved on schedule, and how children cope with other adverse experiences during their lives. If left untreated, the long-term effects can last well into adulthood.

Many children are able to adapt and overcome events and situations depending on their protective factors and risks. The effects of exposure to violence can also be mitigated with appropriate, trauma-informed strategies.

NCFY: What would you say are the hallmarks of trauma-informed care for agencies and staff working with youth?

Cohen: For agencies, programs, and providers to become trauma-informed requires a systemic approach to create a trauma-informed environment:

  • Create policies and procedure statements stating that trauma-informed care is a priority for the organization. Define exposure to violence and recognize the relationship between trauma and outcomes.
  • Understand clients and their symptoms in the context of their traumatic life experiences, history, culture, and society.
  • Screen for past history and current exposure to violence at the first point of contact.
  • Conduct trauma assessments of all those who report a history of trauma during initial screening, and use the assessment results as an integral part of services.
  • Review all practices to ensure that youth and families feel safe (psychologically and physically) from re-traumatization.
  • Develop a comprehensive referral base of available, culturally appropriate, evidence-based trauma specific services and supports.
  • Create a supportive environment for staff that addresses staff attitudes about trauma and includes training, supervision, and other resources.

NCFY: You developed eight tip sheets for different audiences on trauma-informed care. Is there one important thing that everyone can do to be more trauma-informed?

Cohen: Understand the pervasiveness of [trauma] and its impact on how children think, feel, and grow.


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