May 21, 2021

Why Vulnerable Children Need Trust-Based Relationships and How We’re Doing It

After over 30 years of working with children who have experienced family-induced childhood trauma, we know one thing: Children are resilient. They are survivors. They are stronger than most adults realize.

They can overcome literally years of multiple home placements, trauma, violence and poverty. They will endure a mountain of misery to hopefully come out on the other side with loving families, forever homes and bright futures.

What’s the key to these success stories? The embrace of a community that truly supports them — and more specifically, the presence of one or more adults who builds a trusting, nurturing and supportive relationship with them.

At For The Children, we know that through intentional evidence-based programs, we can change the expected trajectory of children in foster care. To put this incredibly vulnerable population on a better path, we focus on creating safe and healthy relationships for the long-term.

Our primary model of care centers on “trust-based relational intervention” (TBRI), an evidence-based approach for working with children “from hard places.”

Developed by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross at the Child Development Institute at Texas Christian University, TBRI is a holistic intervention designed to meet the needs of the “whole child.” It’s an approach to caregiving that is attachment-based, developmentally appropriate, and responsive to the child’s past trauma.

The foundation of TBRI follows three key principles: 

  • Empowerment (attention to physical needs). The empowering principles encourage positive change by ensuring a healthy environment for vulnerable children, such as keeping them well fed, hydrated and feeling safe.
  • Connection (attention to attachment needs). The connecting principles enable strategies that allow child and caretaker to bond and build trust, leading to lasting attachment.
  • Correction (attention to behavioral needs). The goal of the correcting principles is to build the child's social competence so they can learn to better resolve conflicts and self-calm. The principles use both proactive and responsive strategies to promote appropriate behaviors.

Interestingly, the foundations of TBRI emerged more than 20 years ago at Dr. Purvis’s first summer day camp for foster and adopted children who had experienced neglect, abuse, or trauma. 

She detailed the impressive results in a research paper: “At that first camp, later named Camp Hope by the parents whose children attended, we documented unprecedented behavioral and attachment gains in our 10 young campers under the age of 10… Parents and researchers were caught off guard by the dramatic gains in such a brief intervention.”

Today, For The Children follows the principles of TBRI in our own summer camps, which aim to foster resiliency, self-esteem, hope and positive memories. The camp curriculum and activities are all based on TBRI, and ensure that the young campers experience truly life-giving activities throughout the five-day camp.

In order to help a child recover from abuse and neglect, we know that intervention must go both deep and wide. Five days of immersion at our camps go deep and break barriers — but our mentoring programs go wide. We believe that dependable, regular contact with the same, safe adults is vital for the child’s development.

This belief is backed up by numerous studies on the benefits of mentoring programs for at-risk youths. For example, one study showed that disadvantaged teens who have been mentored are twice as likely to attend college. Another study involving more than 1,300 youth found that mentoring led to a reduction in symptoms of depression and gains in social acceptance, academic attitudes and grades.

Research also finds that mentoring of youth in foster care is associated with various positive outcomes, including better mental health, educational gains and attainment, healthier peer relationships, placement outcomes, and higher life satisfaction.

In other words, mentoring works to keep kids more motivated, happier and healthier. Our mentoring programs focus on skills mastery, character building and having fun — plus individualized attention from trained adults who are effective role models.

We design our programs, both the summer camps and mentoring programs, to be transformational. Our focus on creating nurturing relationships built on trust can be literally life-changing for the children we serve.

To set these youth on a path to success into adulthood, we must not sit on the sidelines. We must create the community of support they need and deserve.

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