Tarpon Springs, FL, may be first trauma-informed city in U.S.

Published on
February 14, 2012

Tarpon Springs, FL, once known for harboring the nation's largest sponge-harvesting industry, today boasts a new designation: it may be the first city in the country to declare itself a trauma-informed community.

It isn't that the 24,000 residents of the scenic Gulf Coast community know more than the rest of us about emergency room techniques, spend their time crunching spreadsheets of violence data, or watch more episodes of "America's Most Wanted".

It means that the community has made a commitment to engage people in all walks of life -- education, juvenile justice, welfare, housing, medical practices, businesses, etc. -- in a common goal of less trauma...large and small, immediate and generational. The city of Tarpon Springs brought to its community a concept that is sweeping through the mental health and educational communities, but one that has received little public attention.

So far, the initiative has produced some surprising shifts:

  • Staff members at a local elementary school are asking different questions about why students are having difficulty learning. Kids who can't learn -- for whatever reason -- often disrupt classrooms. So, children are getting hearing and vision exams, new eyeglasses, a weekend snacks and meals program, and a uniform bank (with the support of a local church), and transportation to extracurricular activities.
  • The local housing authority is setting up a trauma-awareness training program for its staff called: "Why Are You Yelling at Me When I'm Only Trying to Help You?" Housing authority clients are often already traumatized due to loss of jobs, health and/or their homes. People who are suffering the effects of trauma are in fight-flight-or fright mode and often their automatic response in a conversation is anger. If a staff member understands this, they can work with the clients more effectively.
  • A 68-year-old resident, who had severe childhood trauma, volunteered to attend the International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego last September. That profound experience led her to review her life year by year and knit 68 caps for premature infants while she ruminated. She donated the caps to a local hospital and foster care center, and is emerging as a local trauma prevention champion.
  • The Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-Entry Coalition used the CDC's Adverse Childhood Experience questionnaire to discover that the overwhelming majority of people in its substance-abuse, batterers-intervention and sex-offender groups had suffered severe trauma. The coalition counselors changed their program, with the result that the ex-offenders feel more optimistic, and that they have more tools to turn their lives around.

These are just small steps, notes local artist Robin Saenger. The project's too young to produce big results yet. "But this is a long-term initiative," she says, pointing out that part of the initiative's commitment is to engage community members one-by-one. "There's not an end date to this. When everybody's participating, there will be a cumulative impact."

Saenger, who was Tarpon Springs' vice-mayor from 2005 to 2011, developed the idea for the initiative in the middle of 2010, when

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Dr. Andrea Blanch (l), and Robin Saenger, former vice-mayor of Tarpon Springs, FL.

she realized that many of the issues facing her city -- including homelessness, domestic violence and substance abuse -- stemmed from exposure to violence. She talked with her good friend, Dr. Andrea Blanch – a senior consultant at the National Center for Trauma-Informed Care -- about the cultural shift required to create a more peaceful community.

"She listened," says Saenger, "and then said: ‘You're talking about a trauma-informed community.'" And Peace4Tarpon was born.

Most people think that "trauma" refers to physical trauma that occurs as a result of a car accident or assault. It's much more than that. Trauma includes:

  • Interpersonal violence – such as abuse, rape, domestic violence, and bullying;
  • Social violence -- such as war, terrorism, and living under oppressive political regimes;
  • Natural disasters and accidents -- such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, and auto crashes;
  • Chronic social stressors – such as racism, sexism, poverty, humiliation and cultural dislocation;
  • Childhood trauma -- such as the types of trauma measured by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study).

When children or adults respond to these traumas with fear, horror and/or helplessness, the extreme stress is toxic to their brains and bodies, and overwhelms their ability to cope.

The ACE Study in particular measured 10 childhood traumas – physical, emotional and sexual abuse; emotional and physical neglect; a parent who's an alcoholic or addicted to other drugs; a mother who's been battered; a family member in prison or diagnosed with mental illness; and a loss of a parent through divorce or abandonment – in 17,000 people in San Diego. (Of course, there are other traumatic events a child can experience – such as severe illness or catastrophic accident – but those were not measured.)

Researchers found a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.

The 17,000 people who participated in the study were 75 percent white, middle to upper-middle class, 76 percent had attended or graduated from college, and, since they were members of Kaiser through their employers, they had jobs and great health care.

In the last three years, 18 states have done their own ACE Studies, and those who have analyzed the data have found similar results.

To those who are implementing ACE concepts and who are active in the trauma-informed care movement, the Tarpon Springs initiative is a bold step, and one that every community in the United States should emulate.

"My belief is that trauma is universal," says Saenger. "There's no trauma-free zone in the world. Everyone's experienced trauma in one form or another, and usually does on a regular basis throughout the course of a lifetime, whether they're involved in a car accident, whether they have a loved one that has substance abuse problems, or witnessed domestic violence." And everyone is affected by the consequences of trauma, including increased costs of emergency services, welfare, school drop-out rates, local violence, and absenteeism on the job.

So, how did the people in this city embrace such a radical concept in such a short time? "The nickel dropped" for Mayor David Archie and the board of commission the day in July 2010 that Blanch did a presentation about the ACE Study and trauma-informed care, says Saenger. "I could tell that he completely grasped the concept, and as a city leader, was in a position to do something about it."

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Sponge diver statue on Tarpon Springs docks.

Then Saenger met with the police chief and city manager to talk about what Tarpon Springs was doing right, and where it could use some help. They put together a list of about 30 people they thought would be interested in the Peace4Tarpon initiative. This group met and formed a steering committee. The committee includes representatives from local churches, the local school district, the local library St. Petersburg College and the Juvenile Welfare Board; the police chief, the mayor, and the city manager; the directors of the community health center, housing authority, local Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Shepherd Center and the sheriff department's ex-offender program; and a growing number of community members.

On February 5, 2011, the city held a community education day, and chose trauma as the topic. The panels and events were funded by the local Rotary club. Six days later, as a result of the steering committee's work, a memorandum of understanding was signed by the Tarpon Springs Community Trauma Informed Community Initiative and community partners to, among other things, "increase awareness of issues facing members of our community who have been traumatized to promote healing."

The Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, which named Tarpon Springs as the site for their North County children's initiative, readily agreed to frame the initiative through a trauma-informed lens.

For the last year, four subcommittees have been meeting regularly to move the initiative ahead, step by step. Last month, the social marketing committee debuted the Peace4Tarpon web site and Facebook page.

Mostly, people have been talking, doing presentations, increasing awareness. "We tell people bring what peace/piece you can. We want to empower people, without having them think that they have to solve all the violence in the world," says Saenger.

She points out that all this is being done without a big grant. In fact, she thinks a large pot of money would have killed the initiative. So would have a top-down county-wide initiative. "You don't throw too much fertilizer on a new plant," she opines. "And you have to grow this from the ground up."

Not everyone has jumped on the trauma-informed bandwagon. For example, a local principal who met with Saenger and has attended a few steering committee meetings hasn't yet seen the initiative as particularly useful for her school. She told Saenger: "We don't have that issue at our school."

Saenger's response: "There's a saying: It's rude to awaken someone who's sleeping," meaning that people will come to this in their own time. "I've seen over and over that when people 'get it', they become passionate and engaged partners almost immediately," says Saenger. "They see the promise and power of this initiative."

She's already sensing a new kind of compassion moving slowly through the community. It's one that she explains by telling a story about an event in which a young man burned down his uncle's pawn and gun shop, then went home, killed his uncle, with whom he lived, his uncle's girlfriend, his grandmother and then himself.

"Rather than going into attack mode on the young man, people asked other questions," she says, questions that focused on the likelihood of his traumatic history, on why he was living with his uncle instead of his parents, and how the community had not noticed his growing dysfunction. "People were asking ‘Where did we miss the boat?' and ‘What happened to him?' instead of ‘What's wrong with him?'"

[This is cross-posted from ACEsTooHigh.com.]

Here are two videos that Peace4Tarpon did:

An overview of the project, and an interview with Dr. Andrea Blanch and Robin Saenger.