Trauma-informed approaches in justice sector

Posted on

Experiencing trauma in the first 18 years of life has been demonstrated to have significant effects on adolescent and adult medical and psychiatric disease, sexual behaviour, healthcare costs and life expectancy. The impacts of trauma cut across a number of sectors and are deeply rooted in the justice system. In fact, 90 per cent of youth who come into contact with the law have experienced trauma at some point in their lives.

On February 2nd, the Provincial System Support Program (PSSP) hosted a knowledge exchange event in Kingston called “Trauma-informed justice: Shifting perspectives and practices.” The event brought together over 60 cross-sector service providers and justice sector representatives, Service Collaborative members from Kenora-Rainy River, expert presenters and panelists.

Participants like Megan Rutherford, a placement student at Family and Children’s Service – Frontenac, Lennox & Addington, felt that the PSSP event would help give her foundational training and knowledge in this area.

“As a student completing my Bachelor of Social Work, it is important for me to be here learning about trauma-informed approaches so that I can enter into the field with a trauma-informed lens and contribute to the shift in dialogue and practice that includes the impact of trauma.”

What does it mean to be justice-informed?

“Being trauma-informed is a state of mind and a lens,” Dr. Jesleen Rana, a Toronto Family Physician, explained to the group.  “What that really means is to have a universal precaution for trauma: you never know, and you never will know, what someone’s experience of trauma is. It begins with awareness.”

The next step is education, according to presenter Dr. Ruth Lanius, who drew participants’ attention to a concerning lack of trauma education in health and human sector programs.

“Service providers are not learning about trauma and its effects on physical and mental health, “said Dr. Lanius, Director of the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) research unit at the University of Western Ontario. “The problem is that we have moved people toward check boxes, and less about understanding their experiences.”

Trauma and marginalized populations

The impact of trauma and research gaps related to marginalized populations  were highlighted in a video address by PSSP’s Dr. Renee Linklater, Director of Aboriginal Engagement and Outreach, and in a panel discussion featuring CAMH’s Robin Cuff, Manager of Aboriginal Services and the Toronto Drug Treatment Court Program, Mobafa Baker, Program Director, African Canadian Legal Clinic, and Dr. Rana.

The diverse experiences and messages from the panelists resonated with many in the room: systems are fragmented and not geared to support trauma-informed practices.

It is critical, they said, that we examine our own biases and privileges, and pay relentless attention to the language we use.

Towards trauma-informed systems

Judah Oudshoorn, a Professor of Community & Criminal Justice at Conestoga College in Waterloo, powerfully captured the topic of shifting towards trauma-informed systems. He felt it was important to ask the right questions. Rather than asking what “bad things” have been done and what the “punishment” should be, approaches should focus on addressing hurts, needs and obligations of all parties. From there, collaboration across sectors is needed to address and heal wounds.

Kenora-Rainy River Service Collaborative

Implementing system-level change was further highlighted by the co-chairs of the Kenora-Rainy River Youth Justice Service Collaborative, Michelle Guitard, Youth Mental Health Court Worker at FIREFLY and Sheri Nolen, Manager of Residential Services of Portage Youth Centre, William W. Creighton Youth Services in Kenora. Michelle and Sheri shared their experience working with PSSP in the Systems Improvement through Service Collaboratives (SISC) initiative and applying an Implementation Science framework to establish standardized trauma-informed practices and protocols across their vast geography and system.

“Wow!” exclaimed one of the participants after the presentation concluded. “How did you manage to get everyone using the same processes and tools across the board?”

The Service Collaborative worked with direct service providers, committed to regular meetings to ensure the protocols were on the right track, led a deputation to City Council to build understanding of the importance of trauma-informed policy, and delivered a policy workshop for agency and system leaders.

Their presentation gave a great nod to the support of the Northwest PSSP Regional Implementation Team, and also demonstrated that system level change is possible and sustainable through collaboration, commitment and hard work.

The Kenora-Rainy River Service Collaborative is one of four communities around the province featured in the new justice video released by PSSP.


Additional Readings:


Back to News