Rochdale Borough Council: A trauma-informed system

blog | Words Steph Gamauf | 31 May 2023

Supporting children, families and communities to thrive

Trauma-informed practice provides the tools and skills to recognise and respond to trauma in the lives of children, families and communities. It enables ways of working to ensure people feel heard, valued and understood.

Rochdale Borough Council has recently made the courageous commitment to become a trauma-informed borough, transforming the ways in which services and organisations work with children, families and local communities. Trauma-informed practice is grounded in the understanding that trauma has a significant impact on people’s life trajectory, enabling Rochdale to build more person-centred, compassionate avenues for support. 

Innovation Unit’s mission is to grow and scale innovations that deliver long-term impact for people, address persistent inequalities, and transform the systems that surround them. Over the past four months, we have applied our expertise in place-based systems transformation to support Rochdale’s Children and Young People’s Partnership in embedding trauma-informed practice across children’s and families’ services with a view to scale this across the wider system. 

The relationship with communities and families needs a radical shift towards more empathetic, whole-person working.  Trauma-informed practice provides the tools that allow staff to centre safety, trust, collaboration, and empowerment in their interactions. There is evidence on the positive impact of this practice on children and families as well as communities facing multiple disadvantages, as recently published by The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.  

For ambitious local authorities, there is clearly an opportunity here to rethink the way in which services are delivered and to transform their relationship with communities towards new forms of engagement. 

In this blog post, we are sharing some practical tips for a strengths- and asset-based approach to developing a trauma-informed system, placing communities’ lived experience at the heart of any model for change.

A case for embedding trauma-informed practice

Trauma-informed ways of working recognises the impact of trauma on the outlook and presenting behaviours of people. Practice prioritises kindness and the building of relationships, listening to and acting on the person’s voice and working to avoid re-traumatising whenever possible.

Nationally, there has been a noticeable shift towards trauma-informed care, which is demonstrating positive outcomes for families and practitioners. The Innovation Unit worked alongside Cheshire West and Chester to support the codification, or manualisation, of the  Our Way of Working programme. This multi-agency approach supports all services working with families to apply trauma-informed principles and practices. Trauma-informed Lancashire and its focus on child-friendly policing, is another great example of positive practice that shows promise in supporting young people at risk of extra-familial harm and is embedded in the Tackling Child Exploitation Practice Principles.

What do we mean by a trauma-informed system?

There are some key features of a trauma-informed system: 

  1. Trauma-informed care is recognised as a positive approach for whole family engagement across the borough. 
  2. Trauma-prevention is prioritised, including avoidance of retraumatisation through the engagement with children, family and community services.
  3. The system works collaboratively to deliver a consistent approach to trauma-informed practice.
  4. Individuals, teams & organisations are supported with this practice, including through creative collaboration and formal support 
  5. Secondary trauma for staff (i.e. the emotional stress caused by hearing or witnessing someone else’s traumatic experiences) is recognised and there are effective systems/processes in place to provide support 

Top tips for implementing change

Adopting a systems approach to trauma-informed practice can feel overwhelming to begin with. 

Our list of top tips for implementing change aims to help services and organisations in their early thinking, drawing on our learning from services who are already working in this way.

Identifying your system’s bright spots:

Find the practitioners, services and organisations that may already be working in this way, This might include health services delivering trauma-informed assessments in a safe environment; a VCSE organisation focusing on long-term, trusted practitioner relationships. Having a strong understanding of local best practice, provides a system with clear starting points for change and a network of local allies.

Developing what good looks like across the system:

For trauma-informed support to be effective it needs to be grounded in the lived experience of communities.

Rochdale’s approach is based on a process of deep listening to children and families and on the input from practitioners at the frontline of this work. This helped people to understand the value of trauma-informed working for families & staff and set the foundations for some clear guidelines for the different features of trauma-informed practice. This in turn provided indicators of what great support to families should look like and how this can be measured.

Mobilising champions across the system:

Creating a trauma-informed system is a significant undertaking and it requires the passion and commitment of people who believe in the transformative impact of this work. Identifying and mobilising a group of leading trauma-informed champions across different sectors is central for gaining momentum and embedding shared ways of working. Senior leaders need to support animated practitioners to embed practice in their own organisations as well as give them permission to collaborate as sector champions to develop joint approaches across the system. 

Developing skills and opportunities for collective learning:

Skilled people with a deep understanding of effective practice are at the heart of a trauma-informed system. Harnessing opportunities for collective, cross-sector learning is therefore vital for a whole-system approach. Trauma-informed training that is accessible to a wide range of organisations, sectors and frontline staff, from receptionists through to project leads and directors, is a key part of that.

In Rochdale, practitioners identified their own personal ‘aha moments’ that allowed them to deepen their practice. ‘Aha moments’ included the opportunity to discuss trauma with a family, reflective practitioner spaces as well as seeing the impact of non-trauma-informed work. Understanding these journeys of personal and professional development allows a system to harness a variety of opportunities to build people’s skills and to develop an ongoing culture of learning.

Spreading the story of trauma-informed practice:

A whole-system trauma-informed approach requires buy-in and a collective vision, held up and supported by a range of services, organisations and stakeholders. Engaging, easily accessible and outcome focussed communications, shared consistently, including by system leaders, are the foundations for driving system change.

In Rochdale, system leaders visibly made a number of pledges. These included commitments to embedding trauma-informed principles across organisational strategies and policies, continuously working with people with lived experience to improve practice and supporting staff to train, learn and reflect. Pledges were recorded, and are ready to be shared and posted to keep building momentum, motivating staff and demonstrating system readiness and urgency.

We are here to help

If you are thinking about embedding trauma-informed practice across your organisation, sector or local authority, we can help you to apply our above learning and frameworks to maximise local opportunities and make a difference in the lives of the communities you are working in.

You can contact Steph Gamauf for more information and to explore how we can support you.