Introduction: Key Values Begin with Safety

Founded in 2009, the California Center of Excellence for Trauma Informed Care is an organization dedicated to helping publicly funded agencies understand the impact of trauma on their clients, both individually and as a group, and to then use that understanding to design programs (interventions, policies, training) to work more effectively with their clients. Using the Fallot and Harris (2001) framework from “Using Trauma Theory to Design Service Systems” as the foundation from which to then build and strengthen the entire publicly funded social service system. Fallot identifies key values from which a trauma-informed program can develop: safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment.

Thus we begin with safety. For many “uninformed” agencies, safety is the word they tend to use to make clients or staff do or not do something. For example, a domestic violence shelter might have a rule against using your cell phone “for your safety.” In many ways a cell phone is a safety device; I can call 911, a friend, a hotline. But now that I am in a DV shelter, I am not allowed to have a cell phone “for my safety.” How can one type of safety conflict with another type? When an agency creates rules that require compliance “for your safety” but do not proceed to explain how the rules are actually for my safety, I become more confused about what safety is.

Instead, a trauma informed organization has safety at its core. If something you are doing for safety conflicts with a larger definition of safety, it is up to the agency (not the client) to understand how this conflict can be resolved in order for safety to be achieved.

A first step might be to assess rules from a safety perspective. Why does a shelter have a “no cell phone” rule? Generally, it is so that the resident does not disclose the location to the abusive partner from whom she is leaving or to stop the abusive partner from tracking her to the shelter. These are both issues related to her safety.

Could a modified rule allow for safety to be achieved?

“Turning off your cell phone when in the shelter prevents your location from becoming known.”

Essential in this scenario is the level of threat this person is facing. The Danger Assessment (www.dangerassessment.org) is a validated tool to assess for level of lethality threat within a specific violent or controlling relationship. It allows any agency working with clients exposed to domestic violence to better assess risk and a more effective safety plan for specific clients. If a woman scores high and uses her phone in the shelter, that would necessitate a different response than a woman who has a low score.

Women in DV shelters often have to travel and attend appointments during the day. If they are not allowed to have their cell phones, how can they communicate? If in danger, how can they call for help? If running late, how can they alert the shelter?

Another safety rule might be useful:

“When using your phone, turning off GPS tracking and turning off your phone for periods of time prevents your whereabouts from being identified.”

In fact, the “no cell phone” rule, which merely tells the resident what to do, could become a “safe cell phone” rule, which promotes empowerment of the woman to make safe decisions for herself, given her specific situation.

The goal of trauma informed transformation is to be able to negotiate potentially dangerous and unsafe situations in a collaborative process that promotes safety and allows for choice. Through these approaches, trustworthiness is also achieved.  If we insist on rules that tell clients what do to, we neither facilitate safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration nor empowerment. In fact we re-enact once again the negative dynamic that the client is trying to change by coming for services.


  • Gabriella Grant is the director of the California Center of Excellence for Trauma Informed Care and also coordinates the Santa Cruz Trauma Consortium and oversees a public and information advocacy project called Stop Trusted Advisor Abuse.