The legacy of childhood trauma and its subconscious impact throughout generations is revealed in a new paper which charts the journeys of two fathers as they work towards safe reunification with their children.

The paper, Using the Adult Exploration of Attachment Interview (AEAI) to break the cycle of Intergenerational Trauma: Illustrations from a Family Reunification Program by Centacare staff Dr Jackie Amos, Bryony Gibson, Bryan Todd and Sam Carpenter, highlights the role therapeutic reunification work can play in breaking the intergenerational transmission of neglect and abuse in households where the parents’ own early experiences have compromised parenting.

Published in The Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, the paper follows two fathers – Gary* and Peter* – whose children were placed in care due to serious concerns for their safety.

The case studies demonstrate how the use of Adult Exploration of Attachment Interview therapy, when integrated closely with social casework, helped each father to address the causes of behaviour and psychological distress that had caused their children to be unsafe.

This trauma-responsive therapy is used by Centacare’s reunification service, to explore how parents’ experiences of trauma in their childhood can impact their parenting out of conscious awareness. This can empower parents to use their learning as a resource for change.

The reunification service (now known as Unify) is funded by the Department for Child Protection to support families to address the concerns that led to the removal of children so that they can safely return to their birth family, without statutory oversight.

“In families that come into contact with the child protection system, trauma is a common theme behind almost all safety concerns,’’ said Sam Carpenter, Manager, Unify Family Reunification Services.

“The involvement of the system can often compound this by shaming parents for the symptoms of their trauma and unintentionally denying children opportunities to heal alongside their parents; allowing the pattern to repeat in the next generation.

“This paper shows that working with families in a therapeutic, trauma-responsive way can directly address the root cause of safety concerns and provide opportunities to break the cycle. 

“For both families, the outcome was more nurturing and safe parenting, relationship repair and safe return of children who may have otherwise spent their childhood in the care system, with a likely higher risk of their own future children also experiencing harm.”

Gary’s story

Gary was referred to Centacare six months after his third child was removed from he and his partner’s care at birth after experiencing withdrawal symptoms having been born affected by illicit substances.

The report documents the rupture of Gary’s relationship with his father, who had a disability, and how reconnecting with his mother marked the beginning of his interpersonal trauma in early adolescence.

Gary was introduced to drugs and was the victim of sexual exploitation. His mother and stepfather enabled the abuse in exchange for cheaper supplies of illicit drugs. Gary began using substances regularly from age 14, resulting in addiction and associated criminal activity.

The report states that through AEAI, Gary formed an understanding of the vulnerabilities that can lead to poor parenting and was able to “feel some empathy for himself and his failure to look after his children’’ which enabled him to identify how his parenting affected them.

“The awareness of his own enduring and painful loneliness slowly translated into Gary becoming more emotionally available and actively engaged with his son and his needs,’’ the report states.

Gary was reunified with his son 10 months after engaging with Centacare.

Peter’s story

Peter’s two children, aged two and three, were removed due to him perpetrating domestic violence against their mother and his wife. Additional concerns included mental health issues and drug and alcohol misuse.

The report states that his children’s trauma was exacerbated by frequent care placement changes and that they displayed behaviour issues including hoarding food, emotional withdrawal and tantrums.

Initially, Peter had limited insight into how his violent behaviour affected his children. On one occasion, he broke every window in the family’s home while they were inside.

The AEAI was used to explore Peter’s capacity for empathy by drawing on examples from his own childhood.

“When Peter was able to see the impact of his father’s behaviour on him as a child, through the lens of being a child again, he could then see the impact of his adult behaviour on his own children.

“Although this insight brought Peter face-to-face with the devastating fact that head had harmed his own children and continued the traumatic cycle that he had wished to avoid, he was able to use this awareness constructively in interactions with his son.’’

Peter’s children had been out of his care for 23 months at the time of full reunification.

Breaking the cycle

The paper evidences the value of introducing trauma-responsive interventions in other family-based support services to increase access to supports for “very vulnerable and traumatised families’’ and help lessen the load on the child protection system by making long-term care a genuine last resort for children who experience harm.

“Centacare’s Children’s Services Unit is privileged to have Dr Amos’ work as the basis of our Therapeutic Framework as it inspires our staff to believe safe parenting is possible within severely traumatised families,’’ Sam said.

“This paper helps to shine a light on this framework as a different way of working with families in child protection that really works. The outcomes for these two families are not unique and they give hope that childhood trauma does not need to be an ongoing life sentence.”

The paper can be accessed via