African-American-teen-girl-window-LaTasha came to the group home from a residential treatment facility where she had been for two years. Prior to that placement, she had been hospitalized seven times, was in a shelter for eleven months, had been in nine foster homes, and had suffered early abuse from her biological family. She pushed so hard to get out of the residential program and was so eager to be discharged to the group home that both she and her staff were surprised at how hard the transition was for her.

The Transition to the Group Home is Difficult

When she first came to the group home, she showed all the signs of feeling unsafe. She tested the staff, insulting and mocking them. She asked questions about the locks and security measures of the home. If ever a staff was uncertain about what to do or if the staff changed a rule (“Yes, I guess you can go outside and hang out for a while before you do your homework.”) LaTasha would say they were stupid, didn’t know what they were doing and were too young to be staff anyway. A couple of times LaTasha’s behavior had become so escalated she had been taken to the local ER for a psychiatric evaluation.

Eating Becomes an Issue

When LaTasha first arrived, she completely refused to eat. She said she didn’t like the food, it wasn’t her type of food, staff didn’t know how to cook. The treatment team wondered if she had an eating disorder, but there was no mention of it in her records. Then, she began taking food and smuggling it to her room, which of course was against the house rules and could bring bugs and other complications. She would sometimes eat snacks or make herself a late-night peanut butter sandwich, but she would never sit at the table with the group. Occasionally she tried to eat her sandwich in the living room in front of the TV, another behavior that was against the house rules.

The Trauma-Informed Response

Fortunately LaTasha’s group home was using trauma-informed treatment and had an excellent treatment team. Led by the clinician, they looked at LaTasha’s behavior and asked “why.” What function was LaTasha’s behavior serving for her? What was she expressing to the team? What emotion-management capacities did she lack and need help with?”

How Did LaTasha’s Eating Pattern Help Her?

It was clear that LaTasha was scared and didn’t trust them. Being in the house and in a strange community, very different from any she had previously known, made her feel unsafe. She was in danger mode. She didn’t know the staff or the other children. Many other people, both professional and not, had let her down and rejected her. She had become used to a residential setting with its inflexible structure, many staff, and locked doors. This new place seemed very weird to her and she was not sure what to make of it. She was not going to connect with these people, act like they were her family, only to be hurt once again.

Let’s Help LaTasha Feel Safe

The treatment team decided that all their efforts should be focused on helping LaTasha feel safe. One key to that would be validation: letting her know that her reaction was completely understandable, given her experiences, and in fact that anyone would feel uneasy in a new place. So, instead of insisting that she eat at the table with the group, staff began trying to support whatever arrangement felt comfortable for her, and expressing their hope that she would join them whenever she felt it was right for her.

A Gradual Change

They let her eat in the living room for a while – and started bringing her a tray of whatever they were eating, so she wouldn’t be stuck with peanut butter sandwiches. After a while, she began eating in the kitchen near where the others were, but not at the table. Then she came to the table, but she was wearing headphones and listening to music. Instead of telling her this was not allowed, staff welcomed her and ignored the headphones. Later, she began to wear the headphones around her neck at the table (“I am in control, I can retreat if I need to”). LaTasha now eats regularly with the group, and her overall agitation has also decreased.
This is a perfect example of how staff can implement trauma-informed care in the daily details of life. The first step was for staff to move beyond “rules” and “misbehavior” and “defiance” to the meaning of what this girl was experiencing, and then to take it seriously, really let themselves feel what this move must be like for her. And then the whole team focused on helping her feel safe and welcome. They did not get caught up in worrying about what if she always wants to eat in the living room; what if all the girls start doing it; then no one will be following any rules. Instead they allowed themselves to honor the emotional reality of one particular girl, and had faith that as their needs are filled people can move on.

Would you like a PDF of the main learning points from LaTasha’s story to use for discussion with your team?
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