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Trauma and Resilience: Building a Network to Strengthen Communities

ChildSavers Director of Mental Health John Richardson-Lauve presents a trauma and resilience workshop to Richmond Public School social workers
ChildSavers Director of Mental Health John Richardson-Lauve presents a trauma and resilience workshop to Richmond Public School social workers, school resource officers and city police officers. ChildSavers

A growing number of organizations in Greater Richmond are working to educate the community about the impact of trauma on children and families. The effort involves service providers, educators, government agencies and community groups. In the first of an ongoing series on Trauma and Resilience, WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find information about the Greater Richmond Trauma Informed Community Network and follow ChildSavers to learn about upcoming “Surviving and Thriving” community trainings. Read about the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, and find more resources with ACEs Connection and the Walla Walla, Washington Children’s Resilience Initiative


ChildSavers Director of Mental Health John Richardson-Lauve stands before a group of teachers, social workers, foster parents and other advocates. He asks them to raise one hand and point.

John Richardson-Lauve: And with the other hand put out your thumb.

Then switch, switch again

Richardson-Lauve: Switch, switch [laughter].

This playful but challenging brain exercise sets the stage for an intensive training about trauma and how it affects neurodevelopment.

Richardson-Lauve: The first question we try to answer with it is why trauma matters, what is the issue we’re trying to address by helping to educate people about trauma and why it’s important to know. The second issue is about how trauma affects the brain and behavior and specifically when we’re talking about kids, trauma affects the ability to learn in a school environment or anywhere else. And then we move into building resilience, both for individuals as well as resilient communities and systems and organizations.

 Childsavers is part of the Greater Richmond Trauma Informed Community Network. It’s grown to 80 member agencies, including school districts, service providers, police and public defenders, nonprofits and youth advocates. Greater Richmond SCAN-Stop Child Abuse Now, helped launch the initiative five years ago, says the organization’s executive director Jeanine Harper.

Jeanine Harper: The primary goal is to really create awareness around the impact of adverse childhood experiences, toxic stress and trauma and then most importantly help children, families, organizations and ultimately our community boost resiliency.

Harper says they began by looking at national research, like the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which links trauma to mental and physical health problems, at-risk behaviors, even early death. They examined the work being done in Walla Walla, Washington by the Children’s Resilience Initiative. They formed committees working on education, policy, the courts and healthcare.

Harper: We know there’s a direct correlation now between experiencing violence as children and cardiovascular disease. We should apply the same emphasis that we do to reducing cholesterol in terms of heart disease, we should apply that same emphasis with these adverse childhood experiences. Healthcare is our newest committee and it will have representation from health care systems in our region, along with private practitioners and public health and really looking at the impact of social determinants on health, looking at how we can do a better job of treating conditions people are presenting with, but also looking at what we can do to prevent adverse childhood experiences and ultimately impact physical and mental health outcomes in a positive way.

Thousands of Virginians are trained each year in trauma-informed practices. Richardson-Lauvecovers the different types of trauma including physical and sexual abuse; community and domestic violence; homelessness and neglect. He discusses how “toxic” or prolonged and stress affects the “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain and how to detect when a child’s in survival mode, choosing “fight, flight or freeze.”

 Richardson-Lauve: Fight, flight or freeze mode are good when I’m in moments of survival. But unfortunately if I’m always in survival mode, if I don’t have the ability to turn that off which is the experience of someone with chronic, toxic stress, they can’t turn that off and therefore they’re always on point with that. I don’t need to be in fight, flight or freeze mode when I’m interacting with my classroom teacher or my parent or trying to go to sleep at night. Unfortunately, the result of that is a lot of negative health effects.

One of the core components of trauma-informed care is responding to need rather than behavior; and asking “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?”

Harper: That’s been our main mantra for five years: look at the behavior and the experience of this person in that trauma informed lens and then act from that understanding.

After learning how trauma affects the brain and behavior, Richardson-Lauve says people can design better responses and build resilience.

Richardson-Lauve: Teachers have the opportunity on a daily basis to have interventions with kids and students in their classrooms in very meaningful ways. And when they’re able to stop and look at a child who might have their head on their desk or the child who is acting out in class or the child who is just having a hard time focusing, and if they take a moment to stop and think, What might have happened to this kid? Imagine that if they ask that question and find out that child’s dad taken off to jail two days ago and he doesn’t know if he’s ever going to see his dad again. Or if that child has been sleeping in a car for the past three days and doesn’t know when he’s going to be sleeping in a regular bed again because they got kicked out of their apartment. [Then] we can have a whole lot more compassion and empathy for that child and we can find ways to help support that child in their learning experience.

 ChildSavers conducted more than 80 trauma and resilience workshops just in the last 10 months, with educators, first responders, health agencies, even the Marine Base at Quantico.

Richardson-Lauve: One training was for their child mental health staff and they wanted to establish basic competencies on trauma and resilience. Then they requested a “train the trainer” so they could develop locally capacity to not just train Marine Corps staff there on the facility but also train in the community there in that Northern Virginia area so they could continue to create a trauma informed community. More recently in April of 2017 we were asked to come up at a sexual assault, domestic violence awareness event and they were bringing people in from multiple facilities within the Marine Corps and wanted to create trauma informed competencies in people who were working with people affected by sexual assault and domestic violence.

The Greater Richmond Trauma Informed Community Network has helped other parts of the state with resources and training, including Petersburg, Hampton Roads and Charlottesville. Harper and Richardson-Lauve say becoming trauma-informed benefits every sector of the community.

Harper: While we want people to have empathy and to understand how impactful this is, you don’t want to stay there. You really want to move to: what can do about it and how can we work most collaboratively with people who are most impacted and the organizations that serve them so at the end of the day everybody has a chance at a full and meaningful life, everybody does. And we really believe because of caring and science and this collective impact that everybody really can have that chance.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.