When our boys arrive at White Fields, many of them come with everything they own. Often this adds up to a few trash bags filled with clothing and a few toys, or maybe a small suitcase. They also sometimes arrive with a “Life Book,” a compilation of various pictures, birthday cards, drawings, and important documents that piece together their lives as they have journeyed through the child welfare system. Many times these books are missing or incomplete, but they are often one of the only ways our boys have of remembering various people and placements over the years. I am always saddened by how little some of our boys know or are capable of remembering about their lives, and looking at their Life Books seems to be a way that some of them hold on to those important details that many of us take for granted.
All of our boys at White Fields suffer from what is referred to as “Complex Trauma.” This means that as opposed to a single traumatic event such as a car accident or one instance of domestic violence, they have experienced multiple traumatic events over an extended period of time. These may have occurred in the form of physical or sexual abuse, environmental or emotional neglect, repeated exposure to domestic violence or community violence, or living in chronically unstable social environments. Recent research has shown overwhelmingly that exposure to chronic, complex trauma such as this in early childhood leads to significant and long-lasting impairment in every area of development. To put it simply, our boys’ brains have developed differently than what is typical. Specifically, their trauma exposure did not allow them to acquire normal responses to stress, and prevented positive neurological responses from developing. Their stress responses are consequently maladaptive, and lead to problems with emotional regulation, relationship skills, executive brain function, and self-concept, to name a few.
At times, the magnitude of the complex trauma our boys have suffered, as well as the problems stemming from that, seem insurmountable; however, we try as hard as we can to meet them where they are and work one step at a time to fill in their gaps. As we are learning with complex trauma, healing comes slowly through teaching and modeling with a great deal of repetition, as well as allowing time to process trauma in a safe way. Learning new skills such as regulating their own mood, following directions, trusting others, reading, problem-solving, and playing takes a great deal of time and patience.
Our hope is that, once they arrive at White Fields, the boys will have the time and support they need to fill in the gaps that were created by their trauma. They will have countless opportunities in therapy, on the playground, in the cottage, on outings, in the classroom, and interacting with safe adults to start making new memories and connections that they can add to their Life Books. That change does not come overnight, but we celebrate the seemingly small victories when they come, and remain hopeful that those small changes will add up to big ones somewhere down the line.
Ashley Melson, Clinical Coordinator