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Beyond Trauma: Empowering Resilience Through Investigations

Posted - November 30, 2023

The term “trauma-informed” has been a cornerstone in various fields, emphasizing the importance of recognizing and addressing the impact of past traumas on those with whom we interact. The investigation field has embraced this important concept and in turn the topic of trauma-informed investigations has become a hot one. The words “trauma-informed” appear before many things to essentially differentiate one approach from another. This has been a good thing, because it has raised awareness and opened people’s eyes. However, as we delve deeper into our commitment to ensuring equity, fairness, dignity, and respect in our work, it’s becoming clear that “trauma-informed investigations” should simply be “investigations.” In other words, the concepts and practical approaches that make up a trauma-informed approach, should be routinely applied in our investigation work.

Here I will make the argument to move away from the word “trauma-informed” and simply recognize that the practice of conducting investigations has evolved and must continue to evolve. One step toward this ongoing evolution is to use language that is more relatable, less stigmatizing, and places a greater emphasis on resilience and the strength of individuals to overcome adversity.

The Power of Language

Language plays a pivotal role in our understanding of the world. As the renowned poet Maya Angelou once said, “Words have the power to shape our perceptions and guide our actions.” In the context of investigative work, the words we choose to describe our approach can significantly impact the experiences of individuals involved. While the term “trauma-informed” has undoubtedly raised awareness about the importance of recognizing and addressing trauma, it also has limitations that hinder our progress toward fostering resilience and empowerment. The word “trauma” carries a heavy weight, often evoking images of victimhood and helplessness. It can inadvertently perpetuate stigmas and reinforce the idea that individuals are defined by their past experiences.

What is Being Trauma-Informed? 

It’s important to emphasize that being “trauma-informed” is not reserved for specialists with a deep understanding of psychology. It is understanding a basic set of concepts that promote an approach to our investigations that is people-centred and founded on dignity, respect, fairness, empathy, and understanding.

Last month I attended a conference, and a speaker, who is a self-proclaimed “finder of fact” and “pragmatic” investigator, stated, “I don’t understand all the complexities of trauma and its impact on people, so I don’t do this stuff.” This statement highlights how people can get caught up in words and language, missing the crucial point that being trauma-informed is not about delving into a person’s specific history, determining whether they have experienced trauma, and diagnosing them in some manner. It’s about recognizing that trauma has an impact on people, that will vary from person to person. It is about recognizing the signs of trauma and understanding its impact. However, we all have trauma in our past, and not every investigation will uncover a person’s past trauma, except of course where the issue under investigation is logically traumatic. Investigators are not expected to be mental health experts, and all they can do is deal with the behaviour, emotions, and actions of those with whom they engage. The hallmark signs associated with trauma are plentiful and can include anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, irritability, anger, avoidance behaviours, memory problems, mood swings, and the list goes on. All of these are commonly associated with other conditions and disorders, and investigators are not able to determine which condition, experience, or disorder an individual might be experiencing, nor should they.

What Do Trauma-Informed Investigations Look like

It starts by dropping the assumptions and implied meanings investigators have historically given to various behaviours people exhibit, people’s ability to recall information and how they recall it, and mythical beliefs concerning people’s action or inaction. The following list includes the core components of trauma-informed investigations. While reading this list it is important ask – Are any of the items in this list things that should only be undertaken or considered if a person has or is suspected to have experienced trauma? The answer is surely NO. It is obvious in looking at this list that every person engaged in an investigation should be afforded the same treatment:

  • Safety and Security: Ensuring the physical and emotional safety of all participants in the investigation. This involves creating a secure environment where individuals feel protected and respected.
  • Trustworthiness and Transparency: Maintaining trust through clear, consistent, and transparent operations. Building trust is essential in a trauma-informed approach, as many individuals with trauma histories have had experiences that lead them to distrust authorities or systems.
  • Empowerment and Choice: Empowering those involved in the investigation by respecting their autonomy and self-determination. This means giving them choices and control over how they engage in the investigation process.
  • Collaboration and Mutuality: Prioritizing a partnership approach where all parties are involved in a meaningful way. This involves recognizing the importance of collaboration and shared decision-making.
  • Cultural, Historical, and Gender Sensitivity: Acknowledging and respecting the cultural, historical, and gender contexts of individuals. This involves being aware of biases, stereotypes, and the specific needs of diverse populations.
  • Supportive Listening and Communication: Employing active listening and empathetic communication techniques. This means avoiding judgment, providing support, and ensuring that communication is respectful and considerate of the individual’s experiences and needs.
  • Confidentiality and Privacy: Ensuring the confidentiality and privacy of all individuals involved in the investigation. This is crucial for building trust and ensuring that individuals feel safe to share sensitive information.
  • Training and Staff Support: Providing ongoing training and support for investigators and staff to ensure they are equipped to apply a trauma-informed approach. This includes training in trauma awareness, cultural competence, and self-care to prevent secondary traumatic stress.
  • Avoiding Re-Traumatization: Being mindful of actions, words, and processes that could potentially re-traumatize individuals. This involves careful planning and execution of investigative procedures.

The point here is to recognize that investigation work necessarily involves all the above components, and utilizing these fundamental principles is critical to delivering access to justice, empowering victims, and instilling confidence in our work.

The term trauma-informed and the lessons from this important connection of concepts and understanding, has been critical to the practice of investigations taking a great leap forward. Now it is time to truly incorporate this practice into the very foundation of all investigative work.

The journey towards resilience is a collective one. In shedding the label “trauma-informed” from our vocabulary, we make room for a more inclusive and empowering narrative—one that acknowledges the inherent strength and dignity in every individual and ensures that these values are interwoven into the fabric of our investigative processes. This is a call to action for all investigators to embrace a holistic approach that not only seeks facts but also fosters trust, access to justice, respect, dignity, healing, and growth.