The Networking of Trauma

Preventing Organised Crime and Other Exploitation Groups Preying on Vulnerable Children

Violent extremists, gangsters and groomers have a simple recruitment strategy. They network trauma. They can spot a vulnerable teenager from 1000 yards. It can be easy to pull them in by sating a desire for belonging or through initial kindness. But the intention eventually is always exploitation.

An Irish security expert once shared three observations about the Northern Ireland conflict. Firstly that at any given moment during the conflict, there were only ever a few dozen people who could actually kill someone. Secondly that they usually came from traumatic homes with fathers who had also killed. He concluded that it seemed political extremists and organised criminals knew exactly how to identify and recruit such people. I have seen similar recruitment strategies in lawless or conflict-affected countries from Afghanistan to Bosnia. It always has devastating consequences.

It’s not black and white. There are economic and structural determinants of violence too. Most people affected by childhood trauma do not turn to crime or violence. But the world is waking up to the impact of childhood trauma as a driver of recurring violence. It occurs in cycles. Data from Wales show that adults affected by chronic childhood trauma were respectively 14, 15 and 16 times more likely to be a victim or perpetrator of violence or use crack cocaine than others. Data on consequences of chronic childhood trauma is similar across continents

There is an underpinning neurobiology to this cycle. Children are dependent on a strong attachment with a parent. If the attachment is absent due to neglect or violence, a child will see it as a serious threat. That threat chronically activates the stress response system. It distorts the way they perceive danger, they way they see themselves as well as their attachments to others. If families, schools or communities cannot provide soothing connections to heal the trauma, the child enters adolescence and adulthood with unresolved chronic trauma. This leaves them extremely vulnerable to exploitation and with limited prospects for learning or finding a lifeline to a better future.

All of this leads to an obvious question for anyone reading this blog. In my neighbourhood are there more forces trying to exploit or trying to prevent the inter-generational cycle of violence? Prevention services, usually delivered through the health system help new parents develop a secure attachment with their child. That attachment is the best weapon against neglect and violence. it can help heal the parent at the same time as protecting the child. In an ideal world these services would be provided globally. As noted elsewhere this type of prevention provides the greatest return on investment for the public purse. No other intervention does more to prevent poor life outcomes including in mental and physical health, crime and productivity.

Response services provide a second chance to children who have already been traumatised. In Trauma-informed schools for example, the teacher creates a calming environment and a caring connection. This ensures every child in school is safe, seen, secure….and most importantly soothed. The four Ss feature in the excellent “The Whole Brained Child” by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. In a Trauma-informed school, the teacher makes the child feel they matter as an individual. Many who come from traumatic childhoods have been rescued by a teacher who did exactly that. Positive relationships and connections build resilience that help teenagers navigate away from poor decisions that bring bad life outcomes. And if a child is approached by a Fagin type exploitation group, they feel they can tell the teacher

A second important question is what is being done in my neighbourhood to prevent the cynical “networking of trauma” by exploitation groups.

Both in the UK and the US, Trauma-informed practice is also being adapted to policing and justice sectors. One of my favourite champions of this is Detective Superintendent Stan Gilmore of Thames Valley Police in the UK. He observed those arrested for “County-Lines” drug trafficking were almost always in their mid teens. He started to see them as much as exploited and vulnerable youngsters as offenders . Instead of pursuing a custodial sentence, the emphasis was placed upon diversion from a potential life-cycle of crime. This included curfews and supervision orders that stopped the gangsters reaching the child . It cut off their source. It also referred the child to services to help address the underlying trauma. The whole approach switches the question to the child from “What did you do?” to “What happened to you?

To me this is intelligent and effective policing. It recognises that the foundations of organised crime are built on networking trauma and vulnerability and if you prevent that networking, you can break the cycle. Childhood trauma is not an excuse for crime, but to effectively reduce crime we need to be trauma-informed.

Just imagine how societies would flourish if we not only prevented the networking of trauma by exploitation groups, but also prevented or mitigated the trauma itself. We now have enough evidence and knowledge to work towards this goal. We just need the political will and the resources

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