- Trauma in Our TownExploring Intergenerational Impacts of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse
My social work career started in a regional/rural location now known to be an epicenter of historic institutional abuse in the Hunter Valley region, north of Sydney, Australia. Decades later, having studied and reported impacts of this abuse to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2012–2017), I now work with young people who are both victims of intergenerational violence and perpetrators of violence and abuse in the Hunter Valley.1 This paper highlights and shares trauma-responsive experiential learning strategies used to bring this work to the classroom in my work as a social work academic at the University of Newcastle, in New South Wales, Australia.
Safety is critical to a conducive learning environment and crucial when learning about trauma.2 Consistent with models for introducing traumatic materials, I am transparent about content to be shared (including its place-based significance) and carefully titrate exposure to practice-based observations.3 I acknowledge that talking about trauma can make us as students and teachers feel unsettled and anxious or bring up memories or sensations we find uncomfortable and distressing. The use of personal pronouns is intentional; it models use-of-self and [End Page 149] foreshadows any discussion of practitioners not being exempt to the experience and impact(s) of trauma. It also assists in balancing power between instructor and students. Cementing this process, I model “checking in” and “checking out” with students to assess well-being and answer the question “How are you traveling right now?” Accessible and contemporaneous labeled emoji responses are offered either virtually through an online poll, or in a tactile poster form that students can add initialed Post-It notes to, or where groups are small and rapport established—conversationally. Response options typically include “I’m great,” “I’m okay,” “I’m meh,” “I’m not doing great,” “I’m having a rough time,” and “I’m really struggling.” Agreement is established with the group that response options indicating distress or risk will result in confidential follow-up by staff; where responses are provided anonymously, I remind students to revisit the contact information for support services I provided at the start of class. I also practice a grounding strategy with students to remind them of ways to manage feelings of distress in the class. This can involve asking students to identify sensory objects—something they can see, feel, touch, and taste, and that should they feel overwhelmed by emotion or unsafe in class, these objects can be useful to activate the senses and effectively “find safe ground” by shifting awareness to more concrete sensations in the “here and now.”
Connection and Disconnection
In my work, community contexts and intergenerational impact(s) of abuse often seem entangled in identity, belonging, people, and place. These can be ties that bind, and ties that break—experienced through dynamics of connection and disconnection. Exploring this with students, I reflect on a social work research project currently being undertaken in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, with young women who use violence in their relationships with mothers and grandmothers.4 I note we observe young women often carrying the voices and weight of trauma experienced by female forebears. When raised in familial contexts of trauma resulting from intergenerational intersections of gendered oppression, structural racism, and social inequalities, young women we work with often experience compounding and cumulative impacts of trauma on their sense of identity and their capacity for connection with community and kin. Yet, these young women display little insight into the experiences of the mothers and grandmothers they resent, women who themselves were and still are also victims of violence and trauma. I explore understandings of these intergenerational impacts with students in terms of empathy and shame, noting that empathy is an important factor in [End Page 150] reducing aggressive and violent behaviors, and that shame is a potential suppressor to empathy and its effect.5 I present students with the metaphor that empathy is akin to “walking in someone else’s shoes” and literally give them a shoebox with shoes and personal items. My use...