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Implementing a Trauma-Informed Approach

by on April 17, 2020

by Rhiannon B. Eades/reades@athenslibrary.org (This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2019 issue of Public Libraries.)

While library social workers aren’t new, the Athens-Clarke County (GA) Library (ACCL) has taken this concept further by working toward offering trauma-informed care at the library, thanks to a partnership with the University of Georgia School of Social Work (UGA) funded by a Community Catalyst grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant Program.

The library, which serves as the headquarters of the Athens Regional Library System (ARLS), was one of 12 US institutions to receive a Community Catalyst grant from IMLS in 2018, from an applicant pool of 51. The $150,000 grant funds a two-year partnership between the library and UGA. The partnership is called Trauma Informed Library Transformation (TILT).

“Our library staff members work hard every day to provide the best service to everyone who walk through our doors and we are always looking for new ways to engage more effectively with our patrons,” said ARLS Executive Director Valerie Bell. “We already follow many of the principles associated with trauma-informed care in our libraries, and we are excited that TILT will give us the opportunity to learn more, hone our skills, an deepen our connection to our community.”[1]

TILT, which officially started in October 2018, is designed to create a trauma-informed environment at the library. As part of the partnership, an internship program has been established to embed social work graduate students at the library. These interns will perform community assessments, evaluate initiatives, link patrons to area resources, an ensure library services are provided using a trauma-informed lens. The program also establishes an after school peer-mentoring program for teen girls from local high schools.

photograph of Akilah Blount, Liv Ricketts, Valerie Bell, and Simone Moonsammy, all persons who worked on this project.
From left to right: Akilah Blount (B.E.E. program specialist); Liv Ricketts (social work intern); Valerie Bell (ARLS executive director); Simone Moonsammy (social work intern); Lydia Hall (social work intern). Photo by Rhiannon B. Eades, used with permission.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE TRAUMA-INFORMED?

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), individual trauma results from an event, a series of events, or a set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.[2]

Any type of organization can provide services following a trauma-informed framework by incorporating six principles of trauma-informed care. According to SAMHSA those principles include:

  1. safety;
  2. trustworthiness;
  3. peer support;
  4. collaboration and mutuality;
  5. empowerment, voice and choice; and
  6. cultural, historical, and gender issues [3]

In a trauma-informed setting, staff understand and take into account the impact of trauma, toxic stress, and adverse childhood experiences; recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma; response by fully integrating this knowledge into policies, procedures, and practices; and resist causing further problems.[4]

“In an ideal world, everyone who interacts with people and families understands trauma and is sensitive to it,” said Jennifer Elkins, an associate professor at UGA School of Social Work and a member of the TILT team.[5] In 2017, Elkins helped organize Awareness to Action: Community Summit on Trauma and Toxic Stress in Athens. This event brought together roughly 200 local professionals from education, law enforcement, criminal justice, child welfare, mental health, other services providers, and community members who expressed concern and interest in establishing a trauma-informed approach to addressing many issues faced in the Athens community.

In the grant proposal, Donna Crumby, assistant director for organizational development at ARL, pointed to the 2017 summit as evidence that there is genuine interest by stakeholders and gatekeepers in Athens to work together to ensure that vulnerable community members don’t fall through the crack. “We want to do what we can to connect with vulnerable people in our community. The library is seen by many as a safe place and our goal is to be able to do more to affect positive change in the lives of our many community members who are in need,” Brumby wrote in her application.[6]

Elkins assisted library staff in writing the TILT grant proposal and offered examples of what a trauma-informed service model could look like at the library. A library using such a model is culturally inclusive and its staff members are trained to recognize signs of and triggers for trauma and work with patrons accordingly. Library staff offering service via a trauma-informed lens practice holistic, integrated librarianship; have an awareness of resources and support and facilitate access to those resources; and actively work to create a safe, calm, welcoming facility with programming for diverse populations. Library policies and procedures are reviewed with an eye toward avoiding retraumatizing patrons.

WHY SHOULD LIBRARY SERVICE BE TRAUMA-INFORMED?

ARLS serves residents in five northeast Georgia Counties and was named the 2017 George Public Library of the Year. The library system adopted “Engaging Communities…Exceeding Expectations” as its vision statement in 2016 and staff continue striving to increase outreach at community events, offer new services to meet patrons’ evolving needs, and forge new partnerships with local organizations. Library staff worked together in 2017 to identify five keywords: inclusive, community, respectful, excellence, and welcoming. These keywords guide the library system’s policies, procedures, and philosophy.

“Becoming a trauma-informed library is a natural progression of the library’s commitment to the people it serves,” Bell said. “Every day, people who are experiencing trauma come into our libraries. Many are young people trying to establish their future in our communities. Empowering library staff to recognize these efforts and to be able to connect patrons with the resources they need is one way for the public library to be more proactive in service to its communities.”[7]

Home to the University of Georgia, Athens is a small city in Northeast Georgia with a population of 127,000.[8] The city’s population is young with a median age of 26.5 [9] While it is the smallest county in Georgia, geographically speaking, Athens-Clarke County has the fourth highest poverty rate in the state with 36.7% of its residents living in poverty, including 39% of the county’s children under the age of 18.[10]

Homelessness is an issue in Athens-Clarke County. According to the 2018 Point in Time (PIT) Count required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 212 people experiencing homelessness in January 2018, not counting those who couch surf or stay with friends and family.[11] From the count, 57% are men and 43% are women. Adults make up 69% of Athens residents experiencing homelessness, while 26% are children, and 5% are young adults, ages 18-24. Only 7% identified as military veterans.[12]

“We see a wide range of patrons at the library, including people who have experienced trauma such as homelessness, PTSD, mental and physical challenges, violence, and other issues,” said Trudi Green, assistant director for public services at ACCL. “Sometimes trauma can make accessing resources and services challenging, even if it seems like those resources are readily available.”[13] As another example of need, Bell points out that the library sits across the street from a large hospital. Patients are sometimes referred to the library for help upon discharge from the hospital. The public library is a natural fit for a trauma-informed care initiative, as it is considered a safe and welcoming space for all, regardless of a person’s socioeconomic status or life experiences.

“Often, people experiencing challenges — homelessness, unemployment, etc. –come to the library to learn about resources. Many of these folks have histories of trauma, so having staff who understand trauma and can be warm and supportive will help these vulnerable folks immensely,” UGA School of Social Work Dean Anna Scheyett explained. “Basically, we should assume that most people have experienced some trauma, and so libraries need to be trauma-informed. The shift in thinking is from “what’s wrong with you” to “what happened to you.”[14]

ESTABLISHING A SOCIAL WORK INTERNSHIP PROGRAM

Library staff members have worked with UGA to create an internship program for social work graduate students. Three interns (one second-year student and two first-year students) began working at the library in October, 2018. Together, the three interns are at the library 36 hours per week. The interns engage in six school credits over the course of the two semesters following a specific curriculum that integrates their activities at the library with classroom learning. “The purpose is to gain experience and master social work competencies with specific practice context,” explained Caroline Sharkey, the students’ clinical supervisor. [15] The interns are tasked with gathering information as part of a community needs assessment, working with the public directly by connecting patrons with community resources, and evaluating the program’s effectiveness.

For the first several months of the program, library staff and partners laid the groundwork for TILT. The interns pored over scholarly articles, networked with library social workers around the country, and worked on a community resource guide that can be used by staff and patrons alike. “Oftentimes, the people who need help have already been referred to providers, but the personal connection is key,” explained Elkins. “This guide will enable staff and the interns to better connect people with the resources they need. By networking with local providers, the interns are compiling information including eligibility requirements, names of gatekeepers, and other helpful information which will ensure people who need help are better able to access it. It’s one thing to have a list of organizations to hand to patrons who need help, but telling a patron about how to qualify, how to apply, and who to talk to makes it more likely that person will be able to successfully connect with the needed resources.”[16]

“We’ve been doing a lot of background work, which looks like community resource development and consolidation, brainstorming community events/trainings, and reading research … about other libraries that have successfully implemented social workers into [their libraries],” explained Lydia Hall, an MSW candidate and one of the library’s three interns. “We’ve also been undergoing trauma-informed and crisis intervention trainings by our clinical supervisors which we then train library staff in. We’ve been getting to know the staff and observing interactions between them and patrons to get a feel for the diverse culture of the library. We are setting up meetings with community partners to inform them of the grant to collaborate on referrals.” [17]

In Spring, 2019, the interns began a schedule of regular office hours at the library, where they are available to meet with patrons and serve as a resource for library staff members.

“While we work with the patrons, we want to remind staff that we are here for them too,” said Liv Ricketts, an MSW candidate at UGA and TILT intern. “We want to make sure that they feel supported, encouraged, and safe here, so that they can do their jobs well. We have some trainings coming up to help staff get a better idea of what trauma-informed care actually means and how they can apply it here.” [18]

SHARING THE IDEA OF TRAUMA-INFORMED CARE WITH LIBRARY STAFF MEMBERS

All library staff will undergo regular, required training as part of TILT, as needs are identified. One key component of the program’s early work was a December 2018 survey for library staff members which included questions designed to identify staff needs in serving patrons who may be experiencing trauma or the effects of trauma. The survey asked staff to gauge their confidence in serving patrons experiencing a range of issues as well as to reflect upon challenges and to identify current organizational supports. The survey’s results will be factored into the trainings developed and implemented by the TILT team to ensure all staff have the tools and support they need to best serve patrons through a trauma-informed lens. “We are looking forward to learning what a trauma-informed environment will look like at our library. Once we are able to analyze our survey results, we’ll have a clearer picture of what kind of training is needed.” explained Bell.

The TILT team’s training program for staff has been designed to be flexible and adaptable to accommodate needs as they are identified through surveys and environmental observation. The library’s leadership team received an overview of trauma-informed services in December 2018, and all staff received thorough training in early 2019. Optional trainings will also be offered to staff members based on assessment of issues faced by members of the community. For example, library staff had the opportunity to attend QPR (Question, Persuade, and Refer) training on suicide prevention in November 2018 as the first optional training offered through the program.

The B.E.E. Club: Empowering Teen Girls through Education

In addition to staff training and the social work internship program, TILT also includes the establishment of a new after-school peer-mentoring program for teen girls in Athens-Clarke County. In speaking to school guidance counselors during the information-gathering phase of the grant-writing process, library staff learned that many young girls in Athens-Clarke County are struggling to cope with trauma, including fragmented families and difficult home situations.

The B.E.E. Club, which stands for Becoming Empowered through Education, is designed to inspire personal development for female-identified students in grades 9-12 by teaching life skills and strategies for academic and social success, while recognizing and allowing for experiences of trauma. The objective is for B.E.E. Club members to become leaders in their schools and communities, serving as peer mentors for younger girls and successfully navigating their way to adulthood.

Club members will learn valuable leadership skills that will serve them through adulthood, including written and oral communication, relationship building, conflict resolution, and teamwork. During the school year, the teens will participate in weekly meetings and activities while receiving training in areas such as strategic planning, public speaking, visual design, and media relations.

“We want to empower teens so they can discover their voices and become advocates for themselves and for issues they care about,” explained Akilah Blount, B.E.E. Club programming specialist.[20] Blount, a UGA Women’s Studies program graduate, designed the B.E.E. Club and will serve as the club’s programming specialist during the TILT partnership. The club includes a weeklong leadership camp for rising seniors, who will then have ownership in their respective schools’ B.E.E. Club chapters. The clubs, facilitated at the school level by a volunteer teacher sponsor and the programming specialist, will meet after school on a daily basis.

A TRAUMA-INFORMED APPROACH BENEFITS EVERYONE

All ACCL patrons, regardless of their social status or circumstances, will have even better access to all of the resources they need in an environment that is safe and welcoming when they visit the library once TILT is fully implemented.

“Social work services should be deeply embedded in the community, in places where people trust and feel welcomed. The library is one such place, if not the place,” said Scheyett. “Having library staff who are knowledgeable about the effects of trauma can help make the library as trusted, welcoming, and supportive as possible. Plus, having social work students who can help connect people with service they need throughout the community, will be a novel and powerful combination.”[21]

Through the work of TILT, library staff will have the training, tools, and skills they need to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma and serve all patrons confidently and sensitively. Library staff and UGA partners plan to create a sustainable program that will outlast TILT’s two-year period. TILT’s evaluation tools will provide useful data and service models that will serve as examples to other libraries interested in establishing similar programs.

“By establishing trauma-informed services, we hope to create a space where all members of the community feel respected and empowered to connect,” said Bell. “This is an innovative and important project and we are so pleased to have this opportunity. We are truly thankful for the support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

References

1. Valerie Bell, personal interview with the author, December 2018.
2. “Trauma,” U.S.Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), accessed July 25, 2019.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Jennifer Elkins, email interview with the author, December 2018.
6. Donna Brumby, “Toward a Trauma-Informed Approach to Library Service,” grant application, May 14, 2018.
7. Valerie Bell, email interview with the author.
8. “Quick Facts: Clarke County Georgia,” US Census Bureau, 2018.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Action Agenda: A Community and Economic Development Strategic Plan for Athens-Clarke County, Georgia (2017): 11.
12. 2018 Athens-Clarke County Homeless Point-in-Time Count, Athens-Clarke County Housing and Community Development Department.
13. Trudi Green, email interview with the author, December 2018.
14. Anna Scheyett, email interview with the author, August 2018.
15. Caroline Sharkey, “A Social Worker Walks Into a Library: Organizational Supports and the Trauma-Informed Library Transformation,” presentation, December 18, 2018.
16. Jennifer Elkins, personal interview with the author, December 2018.
17. Lydia Hall, personal interview with the author, December 2018.
18. Liv Ricketts, personal interview with the author, December 2018.
19. Bell, ibid.
20. Akilah Blount, email interview with the author, December 2018.
21. Scheyett, ibid.
22. Bell, ibid.