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What is good trauma-informed practice?
Issues, challenges and opportunities for trauma-informed practice

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Issues, challenges & opportunities

The latest Academic Insight from HMI Probation looks at the Issues, challenges and opportunities for trauma-informed practice and is written by Dr Sarah Senker, Dr Anne Eason, Dr Chris Pawson and Professor Kieran McCartan. It is an interesting paper which acknowledges that, despite very strong interest in trauma-informed practice, we do not even have a common definition across different health and justice professional groups. The paper examines 10 key questions including the definitions and labels that are applied and by whom, the strength of the current evidence, whether we know how to identify good trauma-informed work and measure positive outcomes, whether the criminal justice system and settings are conducive to trauma-informed approaches, and whether the wider community is supportive of these efforts.

Ten critical questions

The first question examines “What constitutes trauma and who defines it?” The report is particular interesting on who defines whether someone has suffered from trauma. It acknowledges that trauma can be linked to offending behaviour but recognises that trauma has different impacts on different people and it is important that:

“we allow the person on probation to understand their trauma and not force nor prescribe labels on to them just because it may make our professional lives or risk management easier.”

The report goes on to acknowledge that there is no accepted blueprint for working in a trauma-informed way but shares some core values and behaviours which are generally agreed. It recommends that the The process of working in a trauma-informed way should be built around the 5 R’s shown in the infographic I have reproduced below.

They also share some helpful practical steps:

  • pay attention to the person on probation and hear their narrative
  • speak with kindness
  • listen carefully and without judgment
  • encourage the person on probation to speak
  • offer to help with a task
  • be happy and supportive for the person on probation’s success
  • accept people for who they are
  • realise that people making mistakes and support them in trying to rectify them
  • show respect
  • be patient
  • be careful of burnout and seek support when needed.

An evidence base?

The authors provide a succinct and helpful summary of the current state of the research literature around trauma and offending. Much of the literature focuses on people convicted of a sexual offence and has mainly been conducted in the USA. The authors point out that there is life course and developmental criminology research on other forms of offending that has highlighted the importance of past trauma and adversity in the lives of people who commit offences.

They emphasise that trauma and adversity are contextual and correlational factors in understanding offending behaviour rather than causal factors, and caution that this misunderstanding damaged the impact and legacy of the evidence base for Adverse Childhood Experiences.

The report examines a number of other key questions including:

  • Can the priorities of managing risk, protecting the public and being trauma responsive reside together?
  • Is the physical, organisational and psychological environment of criminal justice settings conducive to a trauma-informed approach?
  • What does good trauma-informed work look like, and how do we know it when we see it?
  • What would the expected outcomes of good trauma-informed work look like, and do we measure them?
  • Are senior staff and frontline staff ready for trauma-informed approaches?
  • Is the wider community supportive of trauma-informed approaches? What are the barriers?
  • Are trauma-informed practices achievable and/or desirable?

The authors identify a key challenge for developing trauma-informed practice within the probation world, acknowledging that there is considerable resistance to moving away from traditional accredited interventions and methods, despite the growing evidence base that one-size-fits-all approaches to offending behaviour are unlikely to be effective.


The authors conclude by advocating for trauma-informed practice to be a core element of probation work but acknowledge That there needs to be an improved evidence base to inform policy and practise and that effective trauma informed work is currently some way off.

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Related posts

On Probation
Working with sex offenders

A summary of the new Council of Europe recommendations on the assessment, treatment and reintegration of people accused or convicted of a sexual offence.

On Probation
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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