Beyond Youth Custody

A trauma-informed approach to working with young people

Fran Hughes
Specialist Service Manager, Future 4 Me

Future 4 Me offers specialist support to young people leaving custody and leaving care. The project is funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Youth In Focus programme and is run by the Bristol based organisation 1625 Independent People.

How prevalent is trauma in the backgrounds of the young people you work with?

The young people that access the Future 4 Me project have all been in care or custody, and often both. These experiences are inherently traumatic as they involve a young person being separated from their family, from their peer groups and often their communities. Most young people that we work with at Future 4 Me have also experienced trauma throughout their childhoods, often with significant traumatic events in early childhood.

What kind of behaviours do young people present and how can these manifest themselves?

The young people that access Future 4 Me are often experiencing high levels of instability and are struggling to cope with everyday life. Homelessness is a big issue for them and often they have had a number of accommodation placements which have broken down. Often significant mental and physical health needs have not been met, and the young people are usually not engaged in education, training or employment when they approach us.

Young people regularly feel that they are not in control of their lives, and feel helpless in making any changes to their situation. This usually manifests itself in young people presenting with challenging, chaotic and seemingly self-destructive behaviour. They can often find it difficult to manage their emotions and, as a result, find it extremely difficult to engage in services that they may need to access in order to increase stability. Additionally, young people often reject support initially and we find that we need to take a flexible and informal approach in order to positively engage with them.

How do you take a trauma-informed approach – what implications does this have for your daily practices?

The key to Future 4 Me’s trauma-informed approach is the relationships formed between staff and young people. We work hard to develop a sense of trust with the young people we work with and take a flexible approach to engagement. Initially this involves a significant amount of practical support such as accessing emergency accommodation and health services, making benefits claims and obtaining identification etc. We help young people to navigate systems that they may never have been able to access previously. Once young people have increased levels of stability and have developed trust in their worker we find they begin to take more control in their lives, and are more able to make positive steps towards independence and moving forwards in their lives.

The Future 4 Me team is multi-disciplinary, and all staff are trained in Psychologically Informed Environments. This breadth of knowledge and skills, which includes mental health, means that staff work closely together to meet a young person’s wide ranging needs while also offering the consistency of a single key worker. The project also has strong links with local mental health professionals and services.

Working with young people who have experienced trauma is tough – the staff team ‘goes the extra mile’ and young people tell us they feel that their key workers really care. We have weekly reflective case meetings and monthly facilitated group reflective practice. Each staff member also receives monthly supervision and the multi-disciplinary approach means that the whole team are familiar with each young person that accesses the service. Young people also get to know the staff team through positive activities. This way of working enables us to support young people effectively when a staff member is unwell, goes on holiday or if they leave the service.

What are your top tips for those who work with young people who are known, or are suspected to have, experienced childhood trauma?

  • Find out what works for young people in engaging with you and be flexible in your approach.
  • Make sure you look after yourself and your staff as it is tough working with young people who have experienced trauma. Good training, supervision and reflective practice are essential.
  • Don’t give up. Building positive relationships with young people can take time – remember that you are working with young people who may have learned it is safer not to trust people and it can take time for them to believe that you are worthy of their trust.
  • Work as part of a team. Multi-agency working from the beginning is essential. Young people usually have statutory services involved with their care and working together helps to provide the consistency that young people need.

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