Delphine Collin-Vézina has devoted the past 20 years to researching childhood trauma and supporting children and youth impacted by sexual and physical abuse. Now, with a $2.5-million Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), she will lead a national consortium on trauma-informed care to better support this vulnerable population.
“Over the years, the more I learned about other people working in this area, the more I became convinced we have to work in close collaboration,” says Collin-Vézina, a licensed clinical psychologist and Director of McGill’s Centre for Research on Children and Families. “This SSHRC Partnership Grant is the perfect path to create this synergy.”
The Canadian Consortium on Child Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care will bring together researchers across 17 universities with stakeholders from 38 organizations, along with colleagues at five U.S. universities.
“Everyone shares the same vision and has such a genuine interest to work together,” says Collin-Vézina, who is the Nicolas Steinmetz and Gilles Julien Chair in Community Social Pediatrics and an associate professor in McGill’s School of Social Work. “In the end, we all have the same clientele.”
Along with academic researchers, her collaborators include colleagues in government departments, Indigenous communities, mental health agencies, social services, and youth criminal justice. “With this partnership, we can be more impactful in building cohesive policies and practices across the country,” she says. “We can come together to bring about real change in the lives of children, youth, and their families impacted by trauma.”
Collin-Vézina is careful to note that childhood trauma is not a niche problem. She points to a 2014 Canada-wide population-based study, which concluded that one in three Canadians has been sexually or physically abused (and/or exposed to domestic violence) during childhood. “We need to acknowledge this reality,” says Collin-Vézina. “Unfortunately, family violence is very present in Canada.”
This makes the new Consortium all the more essential, she says. A national partnership is urgently needed, considering the breadth of the issue.
SSHRC Partnership Grants support large teams working in formal collaboration between postsecondary institutions and public, private, or not-for-profit organizations. The grants provide funding from four to seven years to advance research, research training, and knowledge mobilization in the social sciences and humanities.
With a seven-year mandate, the Canadian Consortium on Child Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care will work to ensure that consistent policies, procedures, and practices are adopted across provincial, linguistic, and service sectors.
Collin-Vézina and her collaborators will develop and deliver undergraduate-level and continuing education programs for practitioners (such as teachers, social workers, and physicians) who work with children and youth.
As well, the consortium will hold a national symposium each year, with the objective of maintaining the event beyond the initial seven years. “We want to build the infrastructure so that all of this is solid enough to be sustainable and won’t require further funding,” says Collin-Vézina.
A new web portal will also be created to provide reliable, accessible information on the topic of complex trauma, as well as best practices for trauma-informed care.
What is trauma-informed care?
What exactly does trauma-informed care look like? Collin-Vézina explains that it is a lens through which practitioners recognize the struggles someone has lived through, not only at the individual and family levels, but also societally. Trauma-informed care takes into account the many layers of violence and trauma, and it acknowledges these past experiences have a direct impact on how the individual is functioning in the present moment.
She points to the wave of protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Here is an example of collectively experienced trauma by marginalized populations,” she says. “All these experiences need to be taken into consideration when thinking about how best to offer services.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Collin-Vézina has provided her expertise on childhood trauma and family violence. In March, she called on the Quebec government to issue a clear directive to advise teachers to reach out to students and their families. The following day, the government issued a statement that encouraged school staff to contact their students every week, starting with those in vulnerable situations.
As well, Collin-Vézina has published three articles in The Conversation on how best to support vulnerable students during and after the school closures. Collectively, the three articles have reached a readership of 20,000 as of June 16.
Parenting during the pandemic
With three children of her own, Collin-Vézina is well aware of the issues parents have faced during the lockdown. She is concerned, though, about those in precarious situations — for example, parents who themselves might have struggled in school or who aren’t native French or English speakers. Or perhaps they are caring for children with learning disabilities or behaviour problems. Or they lack access to the necessary technology.
“Many experts are worried these kids are not doing well,” says Collin-Vézina. “They’re not learning and there may be a rise in tensions at home.” This could create conditions for psychological or physical abuse. “When it comes to children who are likely to experience violence in their home, we can’t confine them for so long and think there won’t be any negative outcomes.”
Collin-Vézina acknowledges her field of research can be emotionally draining and even heartbreaking. She credits her own happy childhood with helping protect her from becoming overwhelmed. “I feel I can contribute very positively and bring some light in this darkness,” she says. “And I want to use my position as a researcher to not only build new knowledge, but also make sure that knowledge is useful in real time.”
In fact, it was very early on in her career that she realized there was no other topic as important. “When you start working on child maltreatment, what else can be worth devoting an entire career to?”
Read about Amélie Quesnel-Vallée, another leading McGill researcher recently awarded a $2.5M SSHRC Partnership Grant.
Read about the 18 other McGill researchers who were awarded SSHRC grants in May 2020.