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Shelter Within a Shelter

June 15, 2012

TLC Guest Blogger: Jean West, LCSW, CTC-S, CT

When children move from an unsafe living environment to a domestic violence shelter we breathe a huge sigh of relief. However, we must remember that their inner working model will likely perceive the home environment as “normal” and the new “safe” environment as “scary and strange.” The majority of mom’s entering a shelter have not only their current situation to work through, but also past traumas which may never have been addressed. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, more then ninety percent of sheltered and low-income mothers have experienced physical and sexual assault over their lifespan. Our efforts are more effective when we are able to work with both the parent and child from a trauma-focused lens.

The first step in dealing with families exposed to trauma is for providers to become trauma-informed. Staff must be trained to recognize the basics of trauma reactivity in mothers and children of different ages in order to respond appropriately. Understanding that children must be approached according to their developmental age, not chronological, is of vital importance. It is also imperative that staffs understand that the mothers may be reacting from their own traumatic experiences, and desperately need trauma-informed services surrounding them. An effective shelter creates an environment that is safe, supportive and structured by providing trauma specific care. Trauma specific care for these families includes:

  • Supporting caregiver’s roles in restoring a sense of stability to the family
  • Providing assessments for parents which include screenings for past traumas
  • Assessing whether a child’s development has been interrupted by trauma
  • Training shelter staff and community health care workers to understand the link between traumatic experiences and adverse health/mental health outcomes
  • Identifying and collaborating with community services that are trauma informed

The National Center on Family Homelessness has developed a toolkit to help shelters become trauma informed. In particular, they have developed a  “crisis plan” that is a valuable tool to use with families. It helps families identify triggers that may cause them to react, and strategies they can use to help regulate their emotions and feel safe.  This can be found at

At the TLC Summer Assembly two presentations will offer the opportunity to learn more about working with victims of domestic violence.  Gretchen Miller will present “Finding A Safe Place: Creating Safety for Domestic Violence Through Art” Gretchen will address safety issues with both child and adult survivors of domestic violence. Participants will learn creative interventions to help survivors of domestic violence establish a sense of safety.

Also, Tina Bryant will present “Trauma Work with Children Exposed to Domestic Violence” Tina will specifically address the posttraumatic stress symptoms of children exposed to domestic violence, and will discuss evidence-based skills that can be used to help with these often complex situations.

Come join us at the TLC Summer Assembly July 10-13 and learn more about how to work from a trauma-focused perspective! You won’t be disappointed!


Bassuk, E. and Friedman, S. (2005) Facts on Trauma and Homeless Children. National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Retrieved from:

One Comment leave one →
  1. Linda Duran permalink
    June 19, 2012 10:11 pm

    Excellent post. Wonderful suggestions and idea. Thanks so much!

    Linda Duran

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