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Championing Systemic Change & Trauma-Informed Communities: Charmaine Carter

Posted:  -  By: Chloe Edwards

The author of this post has taken great lengths to ensure the subject matter is dealt with in a compassionate and respectful manner. The following describes experiences of childhood abuse and the survivor’s recovery journey. We understand some of the content may be troubling for some readers, but believe it’s important to amplify lived experiences to be better advocates for children and accurately represent the stories of the individuals sharing them. Discretion is advised.

Virginia Helping Everyone Access Linked Services (HEALS) is a model of service delivery that was developed to assist service providers in effectively linking systems of care and providing support and care to children, youth, and families that have been impacted by trauma or victimization. The program achieves this through their toolkit, which includes resource mapping, screening for trauma, referral and response protocols, family engagement, and a trauma-informed agency assessment.

Charmaine Carter, survivor of childhood abuse, wishes a program like Virginia HEALS would have existed during her childhood. Carter is the founder of a non-profit called Survivors of the Lion’s Den and speaks up on behalf of people that do not have a voice. Her passion for linking systems of care is influenced by her own adversity and trauma. Carter is a survivor of childhood physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. At the age of twelve, she was sexually assaulted by two family members. This produced a childhood filled with turmoil and obstacles. In response to the trauma, she acted out in school and even flunked the 6th grade. One day, she recollected, “I trashed the nurse’s office trying to get someone to listen to me. Instead, they sent me to a psychiatrist and told me I couldn’t go back to school.” Her mother enforced a rule that many trauma survivors may be familiar with: she had better not tell the psychiatrist about anything going on in her home.

As a result, the psychiatrist attributed Carter’s behavior to “normal teenage behaviors.” In utter shock, Carter described the moment, “no one ever blinked an eye when I returned to school. I felt horrible, because no one saw what was happening to me. If I had someone to check on me to make sure I was okay or taken out of that environment, perhaps something would have happened, but it continued into adulthood.” Charmaine Carter wishes that a program like Virginia HEALS would have existed as there are long-lasting impacts of the trauma she dealt with in her childhood. She has long lasting symptoms of childhood trauma, including arthritis from being forced to sleep on the cold, hard floor. She copes with a sexually transmitted disease that she will have for the rest of her life and has socio-emotional struggles that impact her ability to trust and maintain relationships.

At the age of 12, Carter also began abusing alcohol, but she has now pursued a recovery journey after she sought help. In her early 20s, she overcame suicidal tendencies after a healthcare worker set up a program to get her into public housing so she did not have to live with her mother and her mother’s abusive partner. “When we started piloting our tool,” said Laurie Crawford, Project Manager for Virginia HEALS, “we actually identified two youth who had thoughts of suicide.” She further added, “you have to know, and you have to ask the right questions to find out the pertinent information.”

The program supports populations and communities who are disproportionately impacted by victimization and trauma by encouraging direct-service providers in their program to 1) think about support and resources very broadly; 2) consider nonprofits, faith communities, informal or nontraditional sources of support, and/or government agencies; and 3) include agency or program information in the conversation related to best practices and accessibility (cost, transportation, childcare, etc.). Specific attention is given to making the mapping process inclusive of marginalized communities, i.e. Black/African American, Latinx youth, immigrant/refugee youth, LGBTQ+ youth, those experiencing poverty and/or homelessness, those living in foster care, and those with diverse abilities.

Service providers have a great responsibility to ensure those who interact with communities develop trauma-informed best practices and policies. This improves the ability for community members to be seen and heard. It would have improved 12-year-old Charmaine Carter’s experiences greatly. It would have saved her childhood. The Family and Children’s Trust fund is the only public and private entity that works to prevent and respond to trauma and victimization across the lifespan. Currently, they provide funding to Virginia’s multidisciplinary Trauma-Informed Community Networks. The community networks work diligently to facilitate communication across systems and cover all regions of the state. To date, there are over 27+ networks in existence that work with a variety of sectors, including educators, social services, health care, juvenile justice, and more.

“I became an advocate, because I know what it feels like to be a child and want help, but no one is listening,” said Carter.

Here are current advocacy opportunities you can support:

  • Governor Ralph Northam’s budget proposal includes $517,553 in FY22 to provide general fund support to the Virginia HEALS program, which concentrates its efforts on early identification and intervention to lessen the impact of trauma in children, including COVID-19 related challenges.
  • During the 2021 General Assembly Session, Delegate Betsy Carr is championing the proposed budget amendment in the House for $300,000 FY22 for FACT (Item 356#1h). The amendment adds $300,000 in FY22 to support trauma-informed community networks across the state to develop best practices and to continue to fund emergency services to respond to families’ needs.

Take action in support of FACT funding for community networks here. For more updates on session and other action items subscribe to our listserv here.

Need to talk to someone? You can contact the Mental Health America Warmline of VA at (866) 400-6428 and the National Suicide Hotline at (800) 273-8255.

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