Close up shot of child and adult hands working on a puzzleThe field of child development has taken great strides toward a better understanding of how trauma impacts young brains and bodies in the past few decades. Notably, the first CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE study was conducted in southern California from 1995 to 1997, and the continued scholarship surrounding adverse childhood experiences–or ACEs–has shifted discourse in education, human service, and organizations like ours who rely on a trauma-informed lens of early childhood development to best support the children and youth we serve. Broadly, trauma in childhood such as abuse or neglect impacts the areas of young children’s brains sensitive to stress, creating neural pathways highly responsive to real or imagined threats. In the long term, adults who experienced trauma in childhood suffer a host of negative outcomes affecting their physical health, mental health, employment, housing, and other social and economic opportunities. In children, this trauma can also create physical and mental health burdens, with children sometimes exhibiting challenging behaviors as a part of their trauma expression. The ACE studies have prompted us to ask, “What happened to this child?” instead of “Why is this child like this?”

Because our CASA program works exclusively with children in active Dependency & Neglect cases who’ve experienced trauma, CASA volunteers and staff encounter challenging behaviors fairly often. We know that part of what makes the relationship between CASA volunteers and their kiddos so special is that CASAs approach these behaviors through their trauma-informed training and their understanding of the child’s specific background.

CASA volunteer Emma provided consistent connection for her sibling set, while also helping these kiddos’ caregivers navigate some of their challenging behaviors.

Siblings Holly*, Hannah, and Jake were removed from their home and entered kinship care with their grandparents after being exposed to domestic violence between their parents. These three young kids had experienced a lot of trauma in their birth home and when they moved in with their grandparents were displaying many challenging behaviors. Emma showed up for their family every week, giving these siblings space and time to just be kids. She also supported their grandparents, setting them up for success in stepping into a parenting role with their grandchildren. When the grandparents requested extra help and resources, Emma connected them to a resource for diapers and even brought occasional meals for the family with her on her visits.

What research tells us about childhood development and trauma is that strong, healthy attachments between traumatized children and stable adults can help to mitigate some of the negative outcomes associated with adverse childhood experiences like abuse, neglect, and domestic violence. We believe that every child has an opportunity to thrive, and by being a stable adult these children could grow a bond with, Emma helped to create that opportunity for thriving for Holly, Hannah, and Jake.

Today, permanent custody has been granted to their grandparents, and Holly, Hannah, and Jake will grow up in the same kinship home where they were placed for the entirety of their case. The caseworker and caregivers have asked Emma to continue to see the children occasionally, to keep them from losing another important person in their lives. Above all, CASA volunteers are caring and committed to the healthy growth of kids who need extra support.


*Names and identifying information have been changed to protect identities

Are you interested in becoming a CASA volunteer? Contact Julie Phillips at for more information about upcoming trainings.