Teens grappling with trauma from sexual abuse, family violence, pregnancy, incarceration, food and shelter insecurity, or parental divorce or death increasingly need agencies that will welcome and listen to them.
UT Teen Health, an initiative of UT Health San Antonio that promotes adolescent health and wellness, particularly in teen pregnancy prevention, has taken a notable step in being that haven for young people in crisis. And in so doing, potentially heading off a range of serious health conditions.
The Ecumenical Center, a local faith-based nonprofit of community leaders in research, education, and the medical and mental health professions providing and setting standards for counseling children, adults and families, has certified UT Teen Health as a Level 1 Trauma-Informed Care center.
Trauma-informed care refers to an organizational approach that understands and responds to the potential life-long impacts of trauma in families, and emphasizes physical, psychological and emotional safety to help trauma survivors strengthen their resiliency, gain empowerment and thrive.
“What it means is understanding that everybody has a story, and you don’t ask, ‘What is wrong with you?’ – but rather, ‘What has happened? Tell me your story,’ ” said Jennifer Todd, JD, RN, project manager for UT Teen Health. “When we approach people, our organizations and community with that question, we’re able to understand underlying causes.”
The Ecumenical Center is the certifying entity for the South Texas Trauma-Informed Care Consortium – a collaboration between The Children’s Shelter, Voices for Children and the City of San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. They developed the standards to ensure the highest level of adherence to trauma-informed approaches in all interactions with members of the community.
“The prestigious Level 1 designation means that UT Teen Health has completed exhaustive staff development of processes and procedures in trauma-informed care that enables people to feel safe, confident and valued,” said Mary Beth Fisk, executive director and CEO of The Ecumenical Center. “UT Teen Health’s leadership has worked to incorporate best practices into their everyday interactions with children and families, and we congratulate them on this important recognition.”
Importantly, said Todd, “It shows the organizations that we work and partner with, and our community members, that we are dedicated to hearing their stories. So when they see that designation, they know that they’re going to be heard, that they’re going to be welcomed. And we have a place for them at the table at UT Teen Health.”
UT Teen Health partners with community youth-serving organizations and school districts to provide training and support on a wide range of topics, including adolescent growth and development, puberty, how to answer questions on sensitive topics, and providing trauma-informed care.
It started working on trauma-informed practices and approaches within its area of teen pregnancy prevention – with students, school districts and clinics – in 2016. The effects of early trauma can be far-reaching.
“Research shows that if you have multiple adverse childhood experiences, you are more likely to have negative health outcomes,” said Kristen Plastino, MD, director of UT Teen Health, vice chair of clinical operations and professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UT Health San Antonio, and senior medical director for UT practices at University Health. “And so when you see someone in the emergency room or clinic with high blood pressure or obesity, adverse childhood experiences may be contributing to their injury or diagnosis.
“Therefore, knowing there may be more to the story, not just taking the situation at face-value, allows us to provide a trauma-informed experience for the patient and also lets us explore other treatment approaches that take all these factors into consideration,” Plastino said. This knowledge is also shared with medical students, and with residents and faculty.
UT Teen Health submitted its Level 1 certification credentials to The Ecumenical Center in June 2022, culminating in its recent approval.