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5 Things I learned from Kate (or trauma-informed care 101)

kate-and-clementine-300x270Legal advocate Kate Miller travels all over the city to meet with clients who are homeless with severe mental illness. She helps them get disability benefits. One Wednesday, I tagged along to see her work in action. It was a day full of perspective. Here are just five of the things I learned:

1. Small successes can be huge. Early in the day, one man agreed to a mental health evaluation. I didn’t realize the gravity of this decision until he left and Kate rejoiced, stating that his willingness to undergo the assessment demonstrates huge progress, not only for his case, but for his mental health as well. By agreeing to a simple mental health evaluation that will likely demonstrate that he cannot work, he is taking a huge step in achieving benefits and receiving care.

2. Great partners help achieve great work. Workers at the shelters always smiled when they saw Kate arrive. Her rapport with staff allows them to trust her and give her all available information on current and potential clients. These strong, genuine partnerships are crucial to staying on top of clients’ well-being and building their case.

3. Gaining trust is the first step. I knew about trauma-informed care, but after five minutes watching Kate, I started to understand the concept and its importance. Kate doesn’t push too hard. If she suspects trauma, she takes time and sensitivity to uncover information, respecting the client’s boundaries. Because of Kate’s skill at this practice, she gains the trust of her clients, making them more likely to stay in touch and give her information to build their case.

4. Humans are resilient. I heard many stories about past trauma, neglect, and abuse from almost all clients. However, many smiled and laughed in appointments. They were seeking help, meeting with Kate, and taking steps to improve their lives. They had all been through incredibly rough times, yet they were all surviving, which was a beautiful thing to witness.

5. Our work is interconnected. I work with one of the other programs of the Legal Council, Chicago Medical-Legal Partnership for Children (CMLPC) on many projects, particularly with increasing access to Early Intervention resources. The need for Early Intervention (EI) and Individualized Education Plans was clear on my day with Kate. Multiple clients dropped out of school because they just didn’t understand. With additional resources like EI and Special Education at a young age, these people could have overcome their delays and potentially avoided homelessness. The clients that CMLPC aims to serve are people that could end up as HOP clients if they do not access these crucial resources. Wednesday made it clear that Legal Council’s work is strategic, important, and more connected than it may appear.

Sarah Horn, AmeriCorps VISTA