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What Trauma-Informed Means in Practice

31 July 2018 at 7:15 am
A trauma-informed model implemented throughout an organisation, can support a culture of child safety, writes MacKillop Family Services ahead of a two-day seminar exploring The Sanctuary Model in Context.

Contributor | 31 July 2018 at 7:15 am


What Trauma-Informed Means in Practice
31 July 2018 at 7:15 am

A trauma-informed model implemented throughout an organisation, can support a culture of child safety, writes MacKillop Family Services ahead of a two-day seminar exploring The Sanctuary Model in Context.

It has been six months since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handed down its final report, and for many organisations and institutions, embedding the commission’s child safe standards and recommendations is a priority.

The strongest theme underpinning the recommendations is the need for organisations to embed a culture of child safety, and to be trauma-informed in their approach to working with children and young people. But what does this mean in practice? How does it change how schools teach our children, how governments operate, how sport and recreation centres run their programs, or how not-for-profit organisations work with children and families?

Many organisations that work with children already have a strong focus on child safety. They have a comprehensive suite of child-safe policies, compliance checks, and mandatory training for staff. But while compliance and training is important, it is not enough.

At the MacKillop Family Services Child Safe Organisations conference in March this year Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald – one of six commissioners leading the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – stressed the importance of a child safe culture.

“If in 10 years’ time you have every policy and procedure in place, and you meet every mandatory standard, but you do not have a genuine culture of safety – then you will fail,” Commissioner Fitzgerald said in his opening address.

The good news is that a trauma-informed model implemented throughout an organisation can support and reinforce a culture of child safety.

Being trauma-informed means understanding how past adversity and trauma continues to affect someone’s behaviour in the present. A trauma-informed model drives an organisational culture that is focused on understanding and responding to trauma, recognising that trauma has an impact not only on the person who has experienced it, but also on staff and on organisations as a whole. It focuses the staff and organisation on healing and safety.

Before the royal commission, “trauma-informed” was a term mostly limited to organisations that worked directly with victims of abuse such as domestic and family violence organisations or out-of-home care agencies. What we’ve learned is that all institutions that work with children should be trauma-informed. How can a child learn if they’re experiencing stress and adversity at home? If a school is trauma-informed, they will understand the root of the child’s behaviour and respond to the trauma, ensuring the ongoing safety, wellbeing and development of that child.

MacKillop Family Services operates two flexible learning schools to support children who are disengaged or at risk of becoming disengaged from education. The schools operate under the trauma-informed model, Sanctuary In Schools. The Sanctuary Model enables an organisation to create a safe environment that is sensitive to the impact of trauma on individuals and groups and teaches people to cope effectively with stress, and to recover. Sanctuary also supports staff and carers to form communities that are supportive and caring, and to maintain a culture that reflects these qualities at every level within the organisation.

Since implementing the Sanctuary Model, the MacKillop School in Geelong has seen an increase in reading, numeracy and student wellbeing outcomes, with an 80 per cent reduction in critical incidents and 28 per cent increase in attendance (2015-2017).

MacKillop Family Services is an accredited provider of the Sanctuary Model in Australia, through its Sanctuary Institute. Gerard Jones, deputy CEO of MacKillop Family Services and director of the Sanctuary Institute, said all institutions that work with children would benefit from a more trauma-sensitive approach.

“Trauma and adversity is pervasive in modern life. Too often, challenging behaviours and a refusal to engage in learning or other activities can be interpreted as defiant behaviour, and we move to punitive responses that further compound a child’s sense of shame and their reluctance to engage,” Jones said.

“The Sanctuary Model supports staff to support their clients. It also recognises the impact working with clients with trauma, stress and adversity has on staff and on the organisation as a whole. It’s a model that creates safety for all.”

The South Australian government has recently recognised the need for a more trauma-informed workforce after a University of South Australia’s study revealed high levels of psychological distress suffered by more than 27,000 South Australian children. The Sanctuary Institute Australia welcomes this initiative and is actively advocating with other government and education authorities to take similar steps to better support students and families.

“The Sanctuary Institute has adapted the Sanctuary Model specifically for Australian schools to adopt a school-wide, trauma-sensitive approach. We show schools how they can pay attention to students’ and staff safety and wellbeing needs, while still meeting the demands of legislated education standards and curriculum,” Jones said.

The Sanctuary Institute Australia is hosting a two-day seminar in each state and territory capital city from August to October. The seminar, The Sanctuary Model in Context, explores how the Sanctuary Model can harness the power of communities to create a culture of safety, inclusion, wellbeing, learning and growth. It provides detailed information on the Sanctuary Model and how it can be applied in school and community service environments.

See the Sanctuary Institute website ( for further details.

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