Thinking about Trauma: Learnings from the NCTSN Conference

by |

At the end of August 2022, we, Erin McPherson and Amanda Robinson, attended the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) Conference in Baltimore at the invitation of our partners at the Justice Resource Institute (JRI). We are part of the team evaluating JRI’s Metropolitan Boston Complex Trauma Treatment Initiative (MB-CTTI), which is funded by SAMHSA, which also oversees the NCTSN. We were excited to attend the conference to learn more about the work of clinicians like our partners at JRI. We believed going into this conference that the content would focus heavily on trauma-informed clinical practice, similar to the clinical work that the MB-CTTI program offers with children with a history of trauma. 

We quickly realized that the panels had even more relevance to our work in research and evaluation than we anticipated. While we were in the company of many clinicians, the conference focused on a wide variety of topics related to trauma and attendees included evaluators, researchers, nonprofit workers, and others. We discovered that the conference brings together SAMHSA grantees to share what they have learned during their years of working on issues of trauma, ranging from clinical approaches to ideas from research, policy, and community engagement.

It was also clear from the opening session that this conference was going to be valuable not just to the work we do with JRI, but to a lot of the work at ICH. We learned that a trauma-informed approach can and should impact the work we do at ICH, from how we structure our organization to how we plan and implement projects. After reflecting on the conference, we wanted to share some of the main takeaways that stuck with us.

  • Trauma is everywhere. The title of this year’s conference was Advancing Equity, Justice, and Healing: The Future of Trauma-informed Care. The impact of racial and historical trauma was a common thread through all of the panels and sessions, beginning with the opening plenary session, with the presenter sharing that “we see the consequences of trauma every day.” Trauma affects individuals, but it also affects communities and the clinicians and researchers presenting at the conference. Hearing this helped serve as a reminder to us that all of the work we do should be informed by a trauma-informed approach. 
  • Working with experts with lived experience: At ICH, we frequently engage with experts with lived experience – particularly through our participatory research and evaluation projects. At the conference, we attended a panel on empowering and retaining experts with lived experience in the areas we work. Panelists shared ideas and recommendations for building partnerships, encouraging techniques such as engagement, involvement, collaboration, and inclusion. The panelists emphasized the importance of allowing space for lived experts to consider opportunities to share their knowledge, as well as space to say no. They also shared that experts should also benefit from the relationship, through compensation but also through opportunities for things like mentorship. This panel offered a valuable perspective and important reminders for continuing to do responsible community-engaged work.
  • Working with communities. A number of the panels we attended spoke about bringing a trauma-informed approach to engagement with community members, and being thoughtful about the impact that working with us can have on people with histories of trauma. The first session we attended, titled “Families Matter: Approaches for Supporting Child Welfare-Involved Parents, featured a NYC-based organization called RISE magazine, which aims to empower families impacted by the child welfare system. Organization leaders – who were impacted families themselves – shared stories of the trauma they themselves experienced as a result of the treatment of the child welfare system. We also attended a panel on the importance of practicing cultural humility when engaging with Native American communities, who have a particular history of trauma with research. Panels such as these reminded us to take time to listen to our community partners and work with them to find ways to ensure they are able to share their ways of knowing and to empower themselves.
  • Building an anti-racist organization. Having a trauma-informed lens can also impact how we work within our organization. One of the panels expanded on the theme of racial trauma to focus on the principles of anti-racist, trauma-informed organizations and how to implement them.The principles encourage us all to do this work on multiple levels, prioritizing this work in everything from organizational values to structural reforms to human resources. Attending this panel opened our eyes to the idea that using a trauma-informed approach does not just affect our external work with communities and clients, but can also shape ICH’s internal structures and processes. 

The NCTSN conference was rich with information, ideas, and new perspectives that resonated with us and our work at ICH. Already, we both have thought about how these ideas relate to our work at ICH in general and on specific projects. We plan to take these ideas into our work, and share them with everyone at ICH.


Erin McPherson, MPH

Research Associate

Amanda Robinson, PHD

Senior Research and Evaluation Project Manager