Suffolk University has received a $3 million grant to administer and evaluate a program aimed at improving services for youths affected by complex trauma. The University is partnering with the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in implementing the grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Child Traumatic Stress Network initiative.

Many young people receiving services have complicated trauma histories that may involve physical and sexual abuse and neglect, according to Suffolk Psychology Professor Michael Suvak, who is the principle investigator for the Complex Trauma Treatment Network program supported by the five-year grant.

“The psychological trauma field has been studying more evidence-based ways to deal with trauma,” said Suvak. “We still have some work to do to understand how to address complex trauma that happens early at the hands of the people who are supposed to be caregivers. With this project we will provide resources and training to individuals working with at risk youth to improve services by helping staff be more aware of the impact of trauma.”

Research & community benefits

The partnership between Suffolk and the Trauma Center melds Suvak’s experience as an academic researcher with the Center’s expertise developing and disseminating interventions designed to treat complex trauma impacting children, families and communities. Joseph Spinazzola, executive director of the Trauma Center and codirector of the Complex Trauma Treatment Network, and his staff are working in partnership with Suvak. Spinazzola has taken on an adjunct role as a research professor of clinical practice in the Psychology Department.

"The collaboration between Drs. Suvak and Spinazzola represents what is great about Suffolk University and the student experience here: the formation of partnerships within the Boston metropolitan area to promote scholarship, teaching, and doing something positive for the community," said Professor Gary Fireman, chair of the Psychology Department.

Provider training on a vast scale

Spinazzola established the Complex Trauma Treatment Network in 2009 to transform large systems of care to become more trauma-informed. Since then, the Complex Trauma Treatment Network has trained more than 70,000 multidisciplinary providers across the United States through 25 initiatives in 14 states and territories. Working with and through agencies and programs for youths and families that have experienced complex trauma, the Network disseminates best practices to residential treatment settings, homeless shelters, and juvenile detention centers. It will provide training for more than 40,000 providers serving more than 200,000 children and families nationwide.

“Through our partnership with Suffolk University, the Complex Trauma Treatment Network will be able to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of integrating complex trauma treatments and resources into state and community agencies across the United States on an unprecedented scale, including delivery of the only intensive trauma training and technical assistance to the most underserved and remote corner of the United States—the Pacific Southwestern territories of Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands,” said Spinazzola.

The program is aimed at giving providers at all levels—from the system through to the on-site person working directly with the youths--the knowledge they need to effectively serve clients. It will then measure outcomes across all those levels.

“Lots of places that provide services, such as homeless shelters and residential treatment centers, don’t fully understand the complex trauma experienced by their clients, many of whom are at-risk, high-need adolescents,” said Suvak. “People who provide direct care may not have trauma-informed training specific to their roles. A detention center staff person may have a degree in criminal justice but not the knowledge of sociology or psychology that would help in dealing with complex cases.”

Expansive partnership

The $3 million grant extends over five-years. It will support a Psychology doctoral student in the role of a research assistant. Deepened ties with the Trauma Center through the research partnership are expected to expand collaborations involving master’s and doctoral students as well as faculty.

“Suffolk is focused on working with students and the community through mutually beneficial partnerships,” said Suvak. “These collaborations often serve people in need as well as fulfill the University’s mission, and that is one of the reasons that I really appreciate this collaboration with the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute.”