(Part 7) Rooted in Trauma Awareness
(The previous parts of this series have included foundational concepts that every leader in ministry needs to be aware of as they embark on this calling. Moving forward, you will begin to see actionable steps for launching your ministry. Many writings on Foster Care and Family Advocacy Ministry have the first step as talking with your pastor. I agree; that is one of the most important places to start.
However, even if you cannot move forward with developing a ministry within your church based on the pastor's decision, your church can and should still pursue levels of trauma-awareness. I believe it is the best practice for every church, period.)
Amid a chaotic season, a message popped up on Facebook Messenger precisely at 12:02 a.m. The words on the screen instantly grabbed my attention:
"Do you all go to church anywhere with your ASD kiddos?! I've been a mess all night because our child in foster care was kicked out of church childcare this morning and not invited back because of his behavior. I've cried so many tears because this is a loss for him and our family."
I wish I could say this was the only instance when a foster or adoptive family reached out because their child had been told not to return to Sunday School, but that wouldn't be accurate.
This example perfectly illustrates why the first crucial step in Family Advocacy Ministry is to take proactive measures for your church to become trauma aware. By developing a deep understanding of the impact of trauma on individuals and families, your church can better support and empower those who have experienced it, fostering a safe and healing environment for all.
Caring for kids from hard places means we cannot turn those children away.
What is trauma, and why does it matter?
"One common way of explaining trauma is that it's "too much, too soon, too fast" in a way that our body, soul, and spirit cannot integrate. It can involve an extreme stress or shock that is one-time (acute) or ongoing (chronic), interfering with our ability to experience safety, trust, and emotional stability. Our body can sometimes respond by going into our protective mechanisms such as fight-flight-freeze, which is designed to help us respond to existential threats to our being. This is a natural and totally healthy response on a temporary basis. The problem arises when we become stuck in one of these modes, and it becomes a way of life rather than a temporary protective mechanism."
-Dr. Jackie Parke Psy.D.
What are the common causes of trauma in children?
Violence at home
Food insecurity or lack of necessities, such as safe living conditions
A divorce or separation
The death or serious illness of relatives or friends
A parent on military deployment or one who travels extensively
A recent move
Why become trauma-aware?
Understanding the scientific aspects of trauma lays the groundwork for compassion, enabling us to forge a connection that provides an opportunity for growth. Caregivers who lack awareness of trauma-related behaviors often rush to correct them without realizing that their attempts to help can be perceived as a threat by the affected individuals. This, in turn, leads to escalating behaviors in the child and frustration for the caregivers.
Knowing the root of a child's behavior ensures that our response does not exacerbate or activate trauma. It is essential to become aware of how trauma affects children so that we can meet their needs in an appropriate and supportive way. Trauma-informed approaches help to create safe environments where children are more likely to thrive.
Trauma-aware childcare providers look past the behaviors and focus on the child's heart, remembering that they are created in the image of God. They take the time to provide comfort and security, earn their trust, and build a relationship of mutual respect. Doing this encourages resilience in children affected by trauma, allowing them to develop the skills they need for healthy relationships with themselves and others.
As the church, we have a precious opportunity to make a lasting impact on this child's life. Though our time together may be brief, we can sow the seeds of the Gospel and create cherished memories that can make an eternal difference.
Some children will be families for months or years, while others may only have a handful of Sundays. If a child has a negative experience in our care, we miss an opportunity to create a lasting impression of the love of Jesus. If the only memories of church are sad or traumatic, what is the likelihood that they would ever return if given the opportunity?
God has put us in a position of influence and responsibility for helping children who have experienced trauma. Let us be diligent in making a lasting difference in the lives of these children, ensuring that we provide them with a safe and secure environment where they can experience the everlasting love of Jesus!
In an article from Newsweek in May 2022 titled: Evangelical Christian Adoption Movement Hit by "Tsunami" of Mentally Ill Children, we see testimonies by many families who felt encouraged to adopt by their church and now, years later, no longer attend.
Eye-opening personal stories were shared:
"Judgments come from family, friends, teachers, and the church. We shouldn't be pushing people into the deep end of the water, then saying, 'Figure it out.' It is the entire church's responsibility to take care of orphans."
"I know of families who stopped going to church because there were no programs that could handle their children. People ask, 'Why can't these kids just get over it?' "
Another shared that she belongs to one of the rare congregations that furnish extra caregivers to help disabled children, a monthly group for young adults with disabilities, and a group for parents and caregivers.
The reason? Her church has a pastor whose two adopted children are special needs.
If we want to advocate for foster care and adoption as a church, we must also be willing to care for the children and support those who respond. Failed adoptions are occurring in our communities at a startling rate, and the church must acknowledge the challenges families face and do whatever possible to provide stability.
Being Trauma-Aware serves every child
According to the Centers for Disease Control, "61% of adults had at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) and 16% had 4 or more types of ACEs."
Statistically, up to 60% of the children your church serves have been impacted by some trauma. When working with children affected by trauma, it is essential to remember that they come from various backgrounds and experiences. It also means providing a safe and secure environment and teaching them to trust others.
Being trauma-aware makes you better prepared to care for kids in your community. It makes your church safer and helps you support children with traumatic histories and special needs.
Trauma-Aware Church Levels
To create a safe and inclusive environment for all children, regardless of their backgrounds, in your church, four levels should be considered. These levels ensure that every child feels welcomed and supported. If your church already has a special needs program, it can effectively serve children in both the general ministries and the unique needs programs, fostering an inclusive atmosphere.
Moreover, churches with a family advocacy ministry must prioritize completing the initial two levels. This will establish a strong groundwork for supporting and advocating for families within the church community. By implementing these measures, your church can ensure that every child feels valued and included, fostering a nurturing environment for all.
Level 1- Have proper safety precautions.
Ensuring the safety of children is of utmost importance when providing childcare and classes through our church. We are committed to implementing comprehensive safety measures and adhering to the highest standards and best practices. Doing so creates a nurturing environment that promotes the well-being and security of every child entrusted to our care.
Your church should:
Have a written policy communicating safety standards for supervising children of all ages.
Any individual allowed to care for children should be background checked.
Be willing to enforce both participation and conformity with annual training.
Institute the Two-Adult Rule and ensure they are not husband and wife.
Develop practices that ensure children are picked up only by those with permission.
Secure hallways and classrooms so that unauthorized adults can not come in contact with minors.
Level 2- Provide staff and volunteers with training creating trauma awareness
To effectively lead this training, it may seem necessary to enhance your competence. However, there are opportunities to collaborate with various organizations for facilitation support. Presently, America's Kids Belong and Promise 686 offer exceptional video-based training, enabling your church's childcare staff to take the initial step towards becoming more trauma-aware. Additionally, you may consider engaging local organizations or TBRI practitioners to facilitate the training. It is important to note that the objective is not for every individual in your church to be trauma-informed but rather to possess a fundamental understanding of the impact of trauma on the brain and to have applicable tools in their toolkit for connection and correction.
For those interested in further knowledge, consider hosting a "Hope for the Journey" Conference with Show Hope and encourage those who serve children to attend.
Level 3- Have a Buddy Program
A buddy provides children 1:1 or small group assistance and support in an inclusive and safe classroom setting. Churches with Buddy Ministries bless families who cannot attend weekly church and worship services. Buddies have a special heart for children and understand that each child is created uniquely and purposefully.
Our church's special needs ministry has personally blessed our family. In all reality, most, if not all, children from adoption or foster care likely have some special needs. My youngest son is medically fragile and in a wheelchair. The first Sunday we visited, the most amazing volunteer from the church who greeted us said, "If you ever want him to be a part of the children's ministries here, please let us know. We would love to have him with us."
I was absolutely amazed! It's crucial that we ensure every child has a safe place where they can be embraced for who they are. We want them to feel a sense of belonging, even if we know it may require extra effort and creativity to help each child discover their own path. Let's ensure these incredible kids are included in every aspect of our church services.
As a ministry, equip your buddies with additional training to understand the best practices for building connections and opportunities for correction with the children in their care. Ideally, a buddy commits to working with a child consistently to build a rapport and offer a similar structure and routine for the child.
Level 4- Have a Sensory Room
Creating a safe and well-structured environment for children, where their needs are fully met, enables parents to participate in worship services actively. One such space is the Sensory Room, thoughtfully designed to provide various stimulating experiences that engage all the senses. Moreover, this haven also serves as a dedicated area for crisis management and behavior de-escalation, ensuring a holistic approach to supporting children's well-being during worship.
It can include:
padding for the walls and floors
soft play objects
A large crash pad or beanbag
Creating a sensory room doesn't have to be expensive. By carefully selecting affordable materials and incorporating elements that engage the senses, such as soft textures, calming colors, and interactive features, a sensory room can be created that will undoubtedly prove invaluable to the children and families it serves. It will provide a safe and therapeutic space where individuals can explore, learn, and develop their sensory skills while promoting relaxation and well-being.
Your church does not need to be trauma-aware before you can take the next step but make sure you have completed the first two steps before you begin advertising that your church desires to provide childcare for children affected by trauma. At the same time, it's important to recognize that trauma-aware churches are a work in progress, and there is always room for improvement. It's essential that churches prioritize ongoing professional development and continual review of policies and procedures to ensure they remain up to date with relevant research and best practices in this field. Additionally, it is beneficial to create collaborative partnerships with local trauma-informed service providers to ensure that children and families have access to the support they need.
By prioritizing trauma awareness, churches can positively impact the lives of those affected by trauma and meet the best practices for caring for all children through inclusive environments. This benefits the individual and helps create a more compassionate caregiver who ensures individuals feel safe, accepted, and understood when struggling with distressing experiences.
When I have the opportunity to train churches in trauma awareness, I remind them that I need them to have managed expectations for our children from hard places and consider how their little brains function. They may not have a visible disability, but their challenges are very real. I need them to provide safety and loving care for children for 90 minutes, to allow the caregivers, the ones in this 24/7, a brief moment to restore their souls through worship and experience renewal that only this time spent with the father can provide.