Child Welfare in El Paso: Estamos Juntos

A crisis happens in your community. You sit down with your kids, colleagues, friends, partners and have deep meaningful conversations about what happened, why it happened, and most importantly, how to move forward. Sheila Bustillos and Jennifer Lawson from TACFS recently returned from their trip to El Paso for the Trauma and Triumph Border Youth Conference organized by the El Paso Center for Children and the El Paso Child Guidance Center. The conference occurred less than a week after the horrific shooting. Conference organizers had an added task on their hands—how to help children, some new and some familiar in their care, to grasp the effects of domestic terrorism. What follows are Sheila and Jennifer’s reflections.

El Paso child welfare workers showed grace and strength when we visited them. There was an overwhelming sense of family and togetherness. We could feel the vibrant power of love in the welcome we received as we toured Lee & Beulah Moor Children’s Home, HomeSafe, El Paso Center for Children, and the Child Crisis Center of El Paso. Hate will not change the historical legacy of safety and love that exists in El Paso. But, El Pasoans are not alone in their grief. As a Texanx and Chicanx identified woman, Sheila felt this attack in a visceral way as one on her family, her family’s history, and her culture. Yet, you don’t have to be of that culture to act in solidarity. Ultimately, we are all Texans, and Americans, and North Americans, and humans. We have spoken with child welfare colleagues all over the state who are self-reflecting, standing against hate, and having hard conversations with staff, colleagues, and the children they serve about the roots of white supremacy in our nation.

How can El Pasoans, Texans, and Americans move forward from these attacks on our culture? This work is important, not just in light of this tragedy, but to protect our future from similar incidents—to speak truth and call out hate for what it is. The great, late scholar and thinker Gloria Anzaldua taught us that we should focus more on similarities than on differences. When we focus on the way we are similar, space opens to discuss difference in terms of shared empathy, compassion, and solidarity.

We felt this throughout our time in El Paso and especially at the Trauma and Triumph Border Youth Conference. The conference team added to the participant bags the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s timely handout called “Talking to Children about the Shooting” to help child welfare professionals discuss the tragic shootings in El Paso. We encourage all child welfare professionals to read this document and share the concepts with the children they serve. Child welfare professionals can act as healers and empathic listeners. In sum, the document outlined the following strategies to spark discussion with children regarding the El Paso shootings:

1. Start the conversation – silence can convey that the event is too difficult to discuss and, we add, can even in some cases convey complacency.
2. What does your child already know? – find out where they are so you can start the conversation there. Understanding what they know will offer entry points to correct any misconceptions or misinformation.
3. Gently correct inaccurate information – provide it in simple, clear, and age-appropriate language.
4. Encourage your child to ask questions and answer those questions directly – Children are concerned that a tragedy like this can happen to them. They will have hard questions that need to be answered honestly and with accurate information. Answering hard questions honestly can instill trust and build strong bonds between staff and children.
5. Limit media exposure – manage the amount of time children are exposed to media image and sounds of shootings. They suggest that child welfare professionals practice self-care and limit their exposure, as well.
6. Common reactions – behavioral and mental health problems can escalate during a tragedy. Also, children can increase their attachments to care givers during tragedies. We suggest working with children and staff to help them heal either with mass programming and/or specialized self-care practices.
7. Be a positive role model – consider showing vulnerability and sharing your honest feelings and thoughts with children. They suggest not simply unloading pain on children, but to offer suggestions for how to grow and move forward from the tragedy. They need a powerful adult in their life to walk with them and show them.

Craig Bowman, the conference keynote, spoke on youth voice and leadership around the world. He started his speech with these words that epitomize the resiliency of El Paso and of child welfare workers doing unbelievable work in this city:
We are powerful!
We are compassionate!
We are resilient!
We are not afraid!
We are El Paso Strong!