Q&A: Taking a Broader View of Trauma-Informed Care


Photograph of a teen girl comforting another, unhappy, teen girl.Trauma-informed care approaches are important but limited, according to Susan McKenzie-Mohr, primary author of “Responding to the Needs of Youth Who are Homeless: Calling for Politicized Trauma-Informed Intervention” (abstract). The article is a follow-up to an earlier study that McKenzie-Mohr co-authored, “Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire: Trauma in the Lives of Homeless Youth Prior to and During Homelessness,” which found that traumatic experiences permeated the stories of homeless youth’s lives, both before and during their time on the street. It underscored the need for trauma-informed care to include prevention—what McKenzie-Mohr calls “politicizing” the approach. We spoke to her about the recommendations and how youth workers can use them.

NCFY: What do you mean when you talk about “politicized” trauma-informed interventions?

McKenzie-Mohr: There are two aspects I think of. First, it has to do with the concept of trauma itself. As long as trauma is understood merely as an individual phenomenon, then attention doesn’t get paid to the potential social contributors to the problem: families’ and communities’ experiences of oppression, and organizational and social policy change goals. The second aspect has to do with extending how we understand trauma-informed care. The way trauma-informed care has been conceptualized to date, it offers a reactive approach to assisting individuals. While shelters are responding to individual needs of homeless youth, we also need to be attending more generally to family and community wellness, to help prevent our youth from facing high incidences of trauma and homelessness in their lives.

In our article we recommend the Strengths, Prevention, Empowerment, and Community change model as a means to extend that important trauma-informed care framework. The SPEC model acknowledges that we need to have the reactive strategies—shelters, foster care, and crisis work—but while also paying just as much attention to preventive strategies that focus on wellness.

The model advocates a collective focus—exploring community development initiatives, social policy changes, high quality schools, and accessible healthcare—alongside focusing on individual needs such as skill-building and therapy.

NCFY: What does the SPEC model look like in action?

McKenzie-Mohr: While I haven’t seen or read about an organization that is offering both trauma-informed care and more preventive community-based efforts, there are certainly examples of each of those happening. My hope is that there might be some attempts to combine the benefits of both. Often, preventive programs aren’t happening in shelters for homeless youth, where youth are already homeless and have often already experienced significant trauma. Youth workers have to do more reactive work.

However, youth engagement may offer opportunities to broaden and politicize trauma-informed care even in shelter settings. Inviting homeless youth to participate in their services can extend their care beyond a reactive focus on helping them individually to “recover.” It can also help them to become involved in the greater community. Youth speaking up and describing what their needs are, and the ways in which those needs have not been met is absolutely important in creating more significant structural change.

More Information

Bright Idea: Finding Creative Ways to Engage Homeless Youth

Primary Sources: How Can Homeless Youth Contribute to Programs That Serve Them?

Shelter from the Storm: Trauma-Informed Care in Homelessness Services Settings” (PDF, 1.72 MB)

Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency (ARC) Framework (PDF, 593 KB)

SPEC at the University of Miami School of Education

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