Bright Idea: The Sanctuary Model Makes 'Trauma-Informed' a Way of Life

Photograph of a smiling young woman.

Before you read on, ask yourself: How are you feeling? What are your goals in reading this article? And who are your supports in achieving that goal?

Those three questions launch every meeting—for youth and adults alike—at the growing number of U.S. youth programs that use the Sanctuary Model. A form of “milieu therapy,” the Sanctuary Model tailors a program's every operation to be responsive to a client's experiences with emotional or physical trauma. 

“It’s basically about trying to make [trauma-informed care] a way of life in an organization,” says Dr. Liz Kuh, the medical director at Warwick House, a residential program in Warminster, PA, for children and youth with emotional and behavioral problems. Warwick House became “Sanctuary approved” in 2010, after an intensive three-year training process involving their entire staff and their clients.

Martha Tavantzis, director of treatment for another Sanctuary-approved residential program, St. Gabriel’s Hall in Philadelphia, says Sanctuary has helped her program improve measurable outcomes like retention and graduation rates. But the greatest change has been more subtle.

“Things are calmer and better and kids are engaged right from the get-go,” she says. “And staff have that knowledge base to help with emotional management. They feel more in control and not as hopeless.”

Focus on Trauma

Tavantzis points out that many youth workers come from the same troubled backgrounds as the young people they serve, and even those that don’t can be powerfully affected by the suffering they see young people endure.

“Our clients come from some of the most violent neighborhoods and schools in the country,” she says. “And as staff, we’re also human beings. This model allows us to think about how to do our work in a way where we stay sane and continue to be helpers.”

Tavantzis says Sanctuary does more than help individuals heal. It enables staff and youth to work together to create a healing community. When the mother of a St. Gabriel’s resident was murdered, about a year after the organization became approved, Tavantzis and her staff understood that the event was going to trigger not just the young man who lost his mother, but every young person in the Hall who grew up around similar violence. So while the young man was being comforted, other staff and residents stood up to lead community meetings and talk about the loss.

Stages of Implementation

Bringing Sanctuary to an organization requires a fairly serious commitment of money, time and staff. Implementing the model—including ongoing trainings, collaboration with a Sanctuary consultant, and leadership guidance—typically costs between $65,000 and $75,000 over three years. And getting Sanctuary approval has a few stages:

  • An initial meeting of a steering committee made up of five program staff from all areas of the organization.
  • A year and a half of meetings, trainings and discussion, focusing on the model’s key values and particularly the Seven Sanctuary  Commitments to ideals like “Nonviolence,” “Open Communication” and “Growth and Change.”
  • Another year and a half during which youth are taught about trauma theory and introduced to the same trainings as staff, in order to make sure that the Sanctuary ethos is known and practiced at every level of the organization.

Kuh says there’s no shortcut for changing an organizational culture. “Sanctuary has helped us shift away from needing to assert authority and make sure the kids stay in line, to a much more relational approach to caring for the kids.”

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