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Through the Eyes of a Trauma Survivor

Tonier Cain (Neen) had a childhood that was plagued with abandonment, parental neglect, alcoholism, sexual abuse, poverty, chaos and violence. As is sometimes the case with survivors of childhood trauma, the pathway to adulthood wasn’t any easier. Cain spent nearly two decades of her adult life involved in the criminal justice system, bouncing from agency to agency, in and out of jail, homeless, abusing drugs, feeling as though she had no worth at all as a human being. This is a far cry from where she’s is at today. She is now a renowned motivational speaker, advocate and educator who travels all over the world to share with others the importance of trauma informed care. In her own words, she went from “eating out of a trashcan and assuming she’d be homeless forever, to dining with politicians and guiding youth workers to help young people who have suffered unbelievably.” Cain’s message of hope and healing resonates at AK Child & Family. What can we learn from her?

As she describes it the turning point in her life started with four very simple yet sincere words that she heard when entering yet another treatment center, “We’re glad you’re here”. Again in Cain’s own words, “After years of living under a bridge and on the streets, in institutions or with people spitting on me, someone told me they were glad to see me.” Those four simple and kind words provided her with a small ray of hope – that maybe her life did have value; that maybe things could get better; and that maybe treatment might help. As she recalls, for the first time in her life she began to feel safe. Safety and hope were two things she desperately needed to begin her healing journey.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) describes trauma informed care as a “program, organization or system that realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for healing; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in staff, clients and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, practices and settings.” The ARC Trauma Informed Treatment Approach is also “grounded in a deep belief that ... the impact of trauma must be understood in the context within which it occurred and that the ARC lens is not one of pathology, but rather of developmental adaptation (Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2010).” Symptoms or behaviors that bring children, adolescents and even adults into treatment, are often adaptations to living with chronic trauma. Addressing the underlying trauma in a non-judgmental, safe and hopeful environment is the foundation that can open the door to real change.

Cain cautions providers who are implementing a trauma informed care practices approach to expect skepticism from traumatized youth and families. Speaking again from her personal life experience, “We’ve been beaten and hurt all our lives by authority figures, so why would we come in to your program and feel safe?” She encourages youth workers, counselors, social workers and program directors to meet traumatized youth and family where they’re at, without judgment but with dignity and respect. She describes this as the foundation needed to build trust, hope and healing. She cautions providers against focusing on controlling behaviors rather than teaching skills; or running through long lists of rules at the very start of treatment. This only reinforces the sense of powerlessness that survivors of trauma have experienced. Instead Cain emphasizes the importance of empowering others - treating persons served as partners in the treatment process. Encouraging an active role in helping to develop their treatment plan, rather than it simply being just a piece of paper they sign. Conveying through words and actions that there is hope for a better future and even when they doubt themselves, you still believe in them.

When Cain provides training on trauma informed care practices she reminds youth workers that each person’s trauma history and story is unique. What is often coined “behavior problems” is more likely a traumatized youth’s way of dealing with their painful abuse history. For example, Cain’s destructive cycle of drug abuse was one way she learned to numb her emotional pain yet she reflects that it "wasn't what I did that was the problem, it was what happened to me as a child that was the source of my problems." She reminds us to use a nonjudgmental approach, instead of asking the question “what’s wrong with you” to begin asking “what happened to you”.

Cain hopes she can have a positive influence on changing treatment practices to become more collaborative, therapeutic and relationship driven so they are better aligned with what people need to recover. Her passion in promoting trauma informed care is driven in part by her hope that young people don’t follow in her footsteps of homelessness, suicidal ideation and involvement with the criminal justice system as middle aged adults. She has stopped the intergenerational cycle of trauma and abuse within her own family. Her daughter will experience a different childhood than Cain's and she knows this is possible for so many other families. At AK Child & Family we share Cain's desire to make this world a better place, one child, one family at a time. Her motto speaks volumes; it's a message of hope and recovery, “Where there is Breath, there is Hope.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Tonier (Neen) Cain’s story of triumph over trauma or her message promoting trauma informed care, view her video titled, “Healing Neen”.