National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health Hosts Trauma Symposium

Photograph of a young woman with auburn hair, with other young women talking in the background.This November, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) held its annual roundtable meeting in Seattle. In conjunction with this event, the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health (NCDVTMH) led a two-day Trauma Symposium to mark the beginning of an initiative to support state and territory domestic violence coalitions as they assist their member programs in developing the capacity to provide trauma-informed services.

Marylouise Kelley, Director of the Family Violence Prevention & Services Program (FVPSP), kicked off the symposium by emphasizing the importance of developing a trauma-informed approach to advocacy. Presenters gave an overview of the process of developing domestic violence programs that are fully accessible, culturally relevant, and trauma informed, including addressing the complex needs of survivors and their children, such as mental health and substance abuse-related challenges.  

Participants also worked together to identify ways in which a trauma-informed approach is consistent with empowerment-based domestic violence advocacy.  According to Terri Pease, PhD, Director of the Training Institute at NCDVTMH, both trauma-informed and empowerment-based approaches involve “forming a partnership with each survivor to accomplish goals and outcomes that are important to her and her children, rather than imposing our own goals and expectations.” Pease also stressed the fact that the process of becoming trauma-informed is ongoing, not something that we can simply do “start to finish.” Integral to this process is for advocates to recognize how their own responses to trauma can impact survivors and children.  As Dr. Carole Warshaw, Director of NCDVTMH explains, an important part of providing trauma-informed services is reflecting on our own responses and experiences, so that we can work to “embody the kind of world that we want to create.”

Although the central focus of the symposium was on developing trauma-informed approaches to advocacy, presenters and participants emphasized the need for a more holistic framework. “Without a trauma lens, services can be re-traumatizing, but without a domestic violence lens services may be endangering; [and] without a culture lens, services may not be relevant or helpful, and without a social justice lens programs may be not be inclusive or accessible.” said Dr. Warshaw. Many survivors experience intimate partner violence in the context of a lifetime of trauma, including childhood abuse or prior sexual assault, as well as experiences of oppression and trauma related to poverty, discrimination, colonization and immigration. Explaining the importance of tailoring services to the cultural communities they serve, Gwen Packard of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC) shared that most Native women experience multiple traumas over the course of their lives, and virtually all experience the effects of historical trauma. NIWRC and other programs serving Native women, therefore, have always appreciated the significance of trauma-informed advocacy, guided by an awareness of interrelated trauma experiences that incorporates a collective approach to healing. 

The symposium featured several other aspects of trauma–informed advocacy, including the incorporation of a family-based perspective to better serve survivors with children. Susan Blumenfeld, Director of Child Trauma and Training for NCDVTMH, discussed how parental and child well-being are interconnected, calling for the implementation of support services that aim to strengthen the parent-child relationship.  

Representatives from several state domestic violence coalitions addressed this and other topics related to developing the capacity of member programs to provide trauma-informed care. Coalition members from Kansas, West Virginia, Alabama, Idaho, Delaware, Alaska and Ohio facilitated discussions on strategies to collaborate with mental health and substance abuse agencies at the state and local levels, how to integrate trauma-informed principles into accreditation standards, and the safe use of technology to connect survivors in rural communities with mental health counselors.

After a productive two days, symposium participants took away the importance of building an evidence base for doing trauma-informed as well as trauma-specific work with survivors of domestic violence. They also acknowledged the challenges of developing approaches to trauma treatment that are multi-dimensional and account for the impact of multiple traumas, as well as ongoing abuse. Over the next year, NCDVTMH looks forward to working with state and territory coalitions to identify outcome measures for doing trauma-informed work, in collaboration with the domestic violence field.

To learn more about how the Family Violence Prevention and Services Program (FVPSP) supports projects like this through its national resource centers and culturally specific institutes, visit the FVPSP webpage.

To learn more about the role of State Domestic Violence Coalitions, access the State Domestic Violence Coalition Fact Sheet on the FVPSP webpage.