Tara Hutton remembers how the little girl she had been fostering for a year began acting out on the day a new social worker came to their house in Magnolia, Texas. As Hutton and the social worker talked, the girl kept interrupting and trying to get Hutton’s attention. She insisted on bringing her Play-Doh outside, despite knowing it was an inside-only toy.
Though the girl likely couldn’t explain why she felt rattled by the appearance of a new social worker, Hutton recognized that it had triggered her. When she was 3 years old, a social worker took the girl away from her biological family and she entered the foster care system. The experience was traumatizing, and acting out when she saw a new social worker was her brain’s way of communicating that she was scared of being taken away again.
Hutton could have easily misinterpreted the girl’s reaction as bad behavior if she hadn’t been educated about trauma. Hutton underwent some initial trauma-informed care training when she and her husband first became foster parents in 2015, and she has continued researching the topic to help her better understand what goes on in the minds of her two adopted daughters.
“It’s not something you can ever get enough of,” Hutton said. “These kids, they’re just like a little broken teapot. You can glue all the pieces together, but the cracks are still there. And I just am always seeking to try to understand more.”
Nearly every child who enters the foster care system has experienced some kind of trauma. Some were traumatized at home, which may have led to their removal, and others were traumatized by the removal itself. The child welfare community at large agrees that understanding trauma, its effects and how to respond is key to addressing the needs of these children and their families.
Texas State Rep. Ray Lopez (D) has proposed legislation that would require professionals who work with children in foster care to undergo trauma-informed care training, including state attorneys who work on child welfare cases, judges who preside over these cases and attorneys ad litem for children in child protection cases.
It would require additional trauma-informed care training for some employees of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), like caseworkers and their supervisors. The legislation would also establish a trauma-informed care task force and require DFPS to appoint at least two trauma-informed care coordinators in each department region.
“When the trauma-related needs of children and families are properly identified and addressed, the well-being of those children and families are vastly improved,” Lopez said. “We need to provide an environment of connection, safety and trust with others for our suffering kids.”
Similar legislation was introduced in 2019 by a Republican lawmaker and received bipartisan support, but failed to reach the governor’s desk. Lopez hopes it will receive a higher priority in 2021, but some aren’t sure that legislation is the best way to increase education about trauma in the state.
In 2017, the Supreme Court of Texas Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families launched a statewide collaborative on trauma-informed care made up of child welfare experts, advocates, judges, attorneys and representatives from multiple state agencies. The group published a blueprint in 2019 outlining steps to transform the child welfare system in Texas into one that provides trauma-informed care to the children and families it serves.
“Replicated studies on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) demonstrate that childhood stress is linked to poor health outcomes, including obesity, diabetes, depression, heart disease, cancer and stroke as well as alcohol and drug abuse, low graduation rates, and poor employment outcomes,” the Statewide Collaborative on Trauma-Informed Care wrote in the blueprint. “By shifting the paradigm from one that asks ‘What is wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?,’ children and their families will experience a child welfare system that can better meet their needs.”
Monica Faulkner, director of the Texas Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing at the University of Texas at Austin, said it’s important for people who work within and alongside the foster care system to recognize that not all trauma is as visible as a black eye or broken arm, but that it can be just as damaging.
“When we have kids who are growing up with chronic stress, with food insecurity, living in neighborhoods where they’re not ever safe, or dealing with the impact of racism in our society, or the fact that their parents are undocumented – all of that introduces a level of trauma because those kids never feel safe,” Faulkner said. “And when you never feel safe, your brain development is impacted.”
The statewide collaborative was led by Darlene Byrne, a state district judge in Austin. She presides over 2,500 CPS cases annually and estimates that about 1,700 children in foster care are under her signature authority on any given day.
Byrne said when she became a judge, she sought out training on domestic violence, juvenile justice, child brain development and trauma-informed care. It has taught her to assume that everyone involved in child welfare cases has been impacted by trauma, and to respond accordingly.
“The training that I have received in the area of trauma-informed care and responsiveness has assisted me with regard to tone and with regard to understanding demeanors of individuals that have been traumatized,” Byrne said. “Sometimes those demeanors may come across as disrespect, they may come across as aloof, they may come across as disengaged. And it may simply be their natural survivor response to trauma. Me knowing that their presentation in a court of law may be a little skewed from what might be ‘the norm,’ it assists me in serving the family in a more healthy way and a more compassionate way.”
Byrne worries that mandating training through legislation could be too inflexible of a solution. The Texas Legislature only meets for 140 days every other year. Bills passed in 2021 couldn’t be amended until 2023, and by that point a whole new group of lawmakers might have come in with different priorities and agendas.
“Do I believe we need education? Absolutely,” Byrne said. “I just worry whether legislation is really the answer to get the state to do what it needs to do in the area of education.”
Still, others believe supporting Lopez’s legislation is a no-brainer.
“I definitely hope these bills are passed,” said Barbara J. Elias-Perciful, director of Texas Lawyers for Children, a child welfare advocacy group. “We’re going to continue to ruin children’s lives in Texas until there’s a requirement that people have this training. I think it is the most significant and important change that the child protection system needs to make that would solve so many of the system’s problems.”
Elias-Perciful, who used to work as an attorney in child welfare cases, said it’s especially important for attorneys to complete this training because they are the ones who can go to court and ask judges to take actions that will benefit the child, whether that’s getting a second opinion on a medical diagnosis, removing them from a traumatic situation or making a change to their environment.
She said it’s analogous to an attorney working on a case involving a defective car. That attorney would need to know everything about the engine to adequately represent his client, whether that client is the manufacturer or the person who was injured when the engine exploded.
“Trauma affects the child’s engine,” Elias-Perciful said. “All that’s going on inside the child is affecting what the child is doing on the outside. There has got to be knowledge of what the child client needs.”