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Trauma-informed probation practice
Kieran McCartan summarises the evidence base around trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences in the lives of people who have committed offences.

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Trauma-informed practice

Last week, the probation inspectorate published another in its new series of specially commissioned research papers aimed at exploring the evidence base underpinning probation practice. Authored by Dr Kieran F. McCartan from the University of the West of England, this paper focuses on the evidence base around trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences in the lives of people who have committed offences. A trauma-informed approach is promoted which seeks not to re-traumatise with blame and sanction, but to recognise individual strengths and skills, build confidence and re-educate. It is a person first, service user centred approach that is rooted in desistance and strengths-based models, recognising that the causes and impact of trauma are individualised.


Trauma is a broad and varied concept, but fundamentally is a severely distressing or disturbing experience that has an impact on an individual or their broader social network. This means that trauma can be psychological, emotional or physical in nature, with examples including societal events/experiences (i.e., natural disasters, terrorist attacks, COVID-19, etc) or personal events/experiences (i.e., interpersonal violence, sexual abuse, break up/divorce, neglect, disabling conditions, etc). Also, trauma can be linked to:

  • a one-off event (i.e., being a victim of a terrorist attack, a rape);
  • a series of similar events (i.e. ongoing child sexual abuse or neglect); or
  • a combination of a series of diverse events (i.e., being a victim of neglect, childhood sexual abuse and parental divorce).

Therefore, the causes and impact of trauma are individualised.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Building on the research and work on previous trauma and developmental criminology is the idea of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs are negative childhood experiences that can, but do not necessarily, impact a person’s behaviour, health, and psychology across their lifespan. The ACEs can be direct or indirect revolving around abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. While anyone can have one or multiple ACEs, there is a relationship with socio-economic and socio-political factors. Research shows that some populations (i.e., vulnerable populations and populations with a lower social-economic static status) are more likely to have ACEs, with the impact of those ACEs likely to be greater

What is a trauma-informed approach?

Being trauma-informed means recognising the impact that trauma, including but not limited to ACEs, has on an individual and in acknowledging this, providing appropriate support to that person. A trauma-informed approach is a change of perspective from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”. A trauma-informed approach seeks not to re-traumatise with blame and sanction, but to recognise strengths and skills, build confidence and re-educate – embedding new coping skills to enable recognition and regulation of behaviour. Therefore, it fits into the traditional ‘Advise, Assist and Befriend’ mandate of probation and operates within the ‘What Works’ framework to help us address the individual needs of the service user and enable them to desist from offending.

The link between being person first, trauma-informed and desistance

Trauma-informed approaches are rooted in strength-based research and practice (i.e., Risk Need Responsivity and the Good Lives Model) which emphasise that offending behaviour is only one part of the characteristics of an individual. Strengths-based interventions highlight that to reduce reoffending, we need to focus on the positive aspects of the individuals that we work with, their protective factors, not just the risk factors.
Desistance is rooted in the life course and development of an individual and focuses on the way that they can learn to stop offending and change their lives. This is important in terms of reintegration as many people, because of past trauma and ACEs, may not have been fully or appropriately integrated in the first place. Taking a trauma-informed approach enables the service user to recognise that they are being heard, supported, and enabled to change which means that they can own their desistance. Additionally, there are benefits to staff who become enablers of change rather than managers of change. They become fully aware of how desistance can feed into prevention and a reduction in first time offending.

Developing a trauma-informed workforce

In developing a person first, trauma-informed workforce, McCartan argues that  we need to place the individual service user at the centre of the process, allowing their voice to be heard and enabling them to move forward at a sustainable pace; promoting desistance, behaviour change, harm reduction and prevention. A trauma-informed approach can be framed in terms of policy, practice, place, and people:

  • Policy: Workplaces need to have trauma-informed practice embedded at a policy level, ensuring it is a key plank in all organisational policies and factored into the development of new policies. An organisation can then demonstrate that being trauma-informed is at the core of its ethos and business.
  • Practice: Being trauma-informed should be part of the day to day practice in an organisation; it should be constantly considered and developed. It should be written into all aspects of the organisation’s activities and be reflected in development, planning and maintenance of all working practices. It should be the subject of clear leadership in all parts of the organisation. This may mean that trauma-informed practice is recognised as a Key Performance Indicator against which all practice is measured.
  • Place: Being trauma-informed means that you develop a space for service users that is not trauma inducing or triggering, and where they feel able to engage with treatment, rehabilitation or supervision without feeling that they are at risk of relapse. This is a challenge in criminal justice settings, but one that needs to be considered as the shape, layout and flow of a building may have a traumatic impact on service users in general; especially if their traumatic experiences were criminal justice related.
  • People: Being trauma-informed means training staff in how best to communicate and interact with service users. This involves staff training, appropriate leadership and awareness raising. Being trauma-informed needs to be at the forefront of practice in all forms of communication, support, and interactions, especially with challenging and difficult service users. In addition, having a trauma-informed workforce means a reflective workforce that is supported, supervised, and enabled in a pro-active way.


The header image is reproduced with kind permission of Tom Pumford. It was published on Unsplash and you can see Tom’s work here.

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2 Responses

  1. I recently had a change of probation officer and at first, I mistook her passive demeanour to be anything but helpful, believing that the change in probation officer was perhaps indicative of their going to ramp-up my supervision. I even commented on how stern she appeared, feeling as I had at the time, ‘of hitting the nail on the head.

    I am as described in the aforementioned article, an Ace of ACE’s and I sometimes wonder how I’ve managed to make any progress at all.

    Several months have now elapsed and I can honestly say that the difference that this individual has made in such a short time has been truly remarkable. I was not aware of this particular initiative within the probation service before I read this article and upon reading it in it’s entirety, can I now appreciate why there had been a supple approach.

    Covid19 has exasperated everyone’s perspective and having to isolate, whilst not an altogether intolerable situation for me in particular. It nevertheless meant my not having the regular face to face contact, I had otherwise become accustomed to. I have nevertheless been afforded exceptional contact, albeit over the phone, via emails and indeed by texting. This has been invaluable to me, I am a moaner after all and I need an outlet to ruminate and I consider that this approach will provide a much clearer perspective to enable practitioners to expand on their knowledge on timely intervention strategies. Excellent study, extremely well thought through. Bravo

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