Training helps volunteers provide more compassionate care to homeless families

The volunteer was just trying to help homeless families in Lawrence. He didn’t know that, through no fault of his own, he was doing more harm than good.

It was all because he reminded one of the homeless people of a relative who had abused her as a child. When the volunteer left, her anxiety went away.

This example highlights why the program, Lawrence Family Promise, recently had its volunteers take part in trauma-informed care training: to make sure they aren’t retraumatizing people who went through situations like abuse, violence and neglect as children.

“We know that early brain development is the foundation for the rest of a person’s life,” said Toni Detherage, a Lawrence social worker who provides the training, which is sponsored by Douglas County Success by Six. “And we know that trauma changes the way the brain works and develops. Chronologically someone can be 32, but developmentally, socially, emotionally, they might be 5 or 6.”

Recognizing that can help providers not set back their clients even further. This year, nearly 1,000 volunteers with Family Promise, which uses churches and their volunteers to house homeless families, took part in the training.

“The general public is pretty aware now of post-traumatic stress disorder because of our military veterans — and that’s pretty much where the awareness stops,” said Dana Ortiz, executive director of Lawrence Family Promise. “This is post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Family Promise recently made other trauma-informed changes to the way it cares for families. It remodeled the basement of its day house from a “dank, dark, scary, yucky place,” as Ortiz said, to one that’s more inviting and less intimidating to guests. It enhanced the lighting in the day house. It started asking guests what would make them feel safer; that might just mean putting a nightlight in the room they’re sleeping in. “The littlest thing can make a huge difference,” Ortiz said.

People with traumatic experiences, for whom “trust is at a premium,” often have trouble dealing with the complex web that is social service delivery in this country, said Rich Minder, collaborative projects coordinator for Douglas County Success by Six.

He gave an example of a person who has to apply for food stamps at the same agency that oversees child protective services, which the person had traumatic experiences with as a child. “That just triggers for them experiences of having to deal with the government removing them from their parents or not protecting them,” he said. “Now the person doesn’t show up for their appointment. The case manager says, ‘I tried to help the person. They don’t get their food stamps.’ Now the person is to blame for not being compliant. If you recognize that people are going into these systems with trust at a premium, then you modify how you go about giving services.”

Detherage believes many people can benefit from this type of training. “Even if you’re not a service provider, this is important information for you to know,” she said. “Maybe your son or daughter is going to be in a relationship with someone who has trauma in their background. Maybe it’s your best friend, maybe your boss at work. Forty percent of our population has been impacted by this type of trauma.” For people who use Family Promise, she added, “I would say it’s almost 100 percent.”

Joe Retiz, who founded Family Promise in Lawrence, said the training helps volunteers have a “realistic expectation about how the people they’re trying to help are going to respond to them and … how to respond in a way that doesn’t make the situation worse.” His wife, Nancy, who also volunteers for Family Promise, added that the course taught her that “these traumas don’t just disappear and they can be lingering and they can affect you for a long time.”