What we know

Although some Indigenous children grow up in safe environments, others experience trauma (ABS 2006, 2009; ABS & AIHW 2008; FaHCSIA 2011; Silburn et al. 2006). The trauma of historical events associated with colonisation of Indigenous land can pass to children (inter-generational trauma). Even if protected from the traumatic life experiences of family, some Indigenous children, like non-Indigenous children, directly experience trauma through exposure to an accident, family violence and abuse. Although the effects of childhood trauma can be severe and long lasting, recovery can be mediated by appropriate interventions.

What works

Trauma research specific to Indigenous Australian children and their families is in its infancy. Hard evaluative data are comparatively rarely available in the peer-reviewed literature. However, evidence takes many forms. Consequently, this paper draws on documented practice experience; that is, writings from trauma and research experts on how, where and why they are delivering trauma-informed services and trauma-specific care to aid the healing and recovery of victims/survivors of trauma. It is also informed by relevant literature from diverse fields such as neurodevelopment.

Service providers working with all population groups who are affected by trauma need to adapt their programs to account for their clients’ traumatic experiences. The perspectives of trauma experts, service providers and clients suggest that services need to be ‘trauma-informed’. Trauma-informed services directly deal with trauma and its effects.

Such services:

  • understand trauma and its impact on individuals (such as children), families and communal groups
  • create environments in which children feel physically and emotionally safe
  • employ culturally competent staff and adopt practices that acknowledge and demonstrate respect for specific cultural backgrounds
  • support victims/survivors of trauma to regain a sense of control over their daily lives and actively involve them in the healing journey
  • share power and governance, including involving community members in the design and evaluation of programs
  • integrate and coordinate care to meet children’s needs holistically
  • support safe relationship building as a means of promoting healing and recovery.

Although the development of trauma-informed services is critical, children who are victims/survivors of trauma also require individual therapeutic care (that is, trauma-specific care). There is no single way to provide such care. Documented practice experience suggests that approaches informed by Indigenous culture show promise for supporting healing and recovery. A neurodevelopmental view of childhood trauma offers novel directions for assessment and intervention. There is also emerging evidence that supports an ecological approach (which considers and acts on all systems that are negatively affecting a child’s situation) and physical activity as a means of promoting positive mental health outcomes for children.

What doesn’t work

Given the lack of evaluative data in this area, conclusions regarding what doesn’t work are inappropriate.

What we don’t know

The links between the implementation of trauma-informed services and trauma-specific care and improvements in the health and wellbeing of Indigenous children are typically anecdotal. Further systematic research is needed to determine whether, and on what basis, trauma-informed services and trauma-specific care practices appropriately tackle childhood trauma.