Complex Trauma WA Inc.

Building trauma-informed communities in Western Australia

People working together to build something

Our Story

What is Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is surprisingly common, but is often not recognised as a major contributing factor in someone’s difficulties with life.

Estimated to affect 1 in 4 Australian adults, it is substantially different from single-incident trauma such as natural disasters, motor vehicle accidents, or physical assault. That is because complex trauma (also often referred to as ‘relational trauma’ or ‘betrayal trauma’) is interpersonal, ongoing and/or repeated. It can involve being or feeling trapped; and it may sometimes also be premeditated and extreme.

Suburb with houses and people
Estimated to affect 1 in 4 Australian Adults

Frequently, but not always, complex trauma occurs during developmentally sensitive periods of brain development; and thereby alters the structural development of neural networks and the biochemistry of neuroendocrine systems.

Develops following repeated physical, sexual or emotional abuse and neglect, often in childhood
Young child playing with a toy car

The long-term consequences of complex trauma include a strong and often co-occurring relationship with numerous physical health and mental health problems, as well as economic, social, and behavioural problems throughout people’s lives. However, these are not usually thought of as related to earlier abuse or neglect; and people do not ‘grow out of it’.

Links between complex trauma and heart disease, cancer, chronic pain, emphysema, diabetes, chronic lung disease, sexual health problems, sexually transmitted infections, depression, eating disorders, major dental problems, self-mutilation, learning disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, teenage pregnancies, homelessness, suicide, and more are now well-established; and the cost to society is enormous.

Doctors with pills
People do not "grow out of it", and it often results in lifelong health and social problems

Establishment of Complex Trauma WA

Until relatively recently, the effect of childhood trauma was either unrecognised, or conflated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, thanks to a growing understanding of the neurobiology of trauma, the WHO International Classification of Diseases now recognise PTSD and complex trauma (sometimes also referred to as Complex-PTSD) as two distinct clinical entities that require different therapeutic approaches.

Complex Trauma is not the same as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Two documents that are not the same

The need for a trauma-informed organisation that knew the Western Australia context, and which is designed to meet the unique treatment needs of people with complex trauma, was formally identified by members of the multidisciplinary Perth Complex Trauma Mental Health Professionals Network (MHPN).

Complex Trauma WA started to take shape in November 2015, when a small group of clinical psychologists in private practice donned their passionate hats, and commenced work to establish a trauma-informed professional membership organisation for service providers in Western Australia. We wanted to enhance service delivery to our clients, who all presented with a history of complex trauma; and we wanted those services to take into account the context, culture, and realities of life in Western Australia.

Person standing next to a large calculator
The cost of untreated complex trauma is enormous

We were pleased to learn that we were not alone in wanting a less siloed, more coordinated approach to local service delivery. Although we heard some horror stories, we also came to know more of the many skilled service providers and extraordinary trauma support services already working in Western Australia. There was no need to duplicate services or reinvent wheels – and that is still not our aim. It also became clear that practitioners in rural regions of Western Australia desperately needed ways to access peer support networks for the work they were doing.

And it also became clear that, while many people supported the idea of collaborative service delivery, everybody was low on essential resources to drive this – time, funds, and energy.

Trauma-informed treatment works, and allows those with a lived experience heal and thrive
Arrows going upwards with a person near the top

That just inspired us more, and in August 2018, Complex Trauma WA (COTWA) registered as a Not-For-Profit Incorporated Association. We believed that trauma-informed communities which increasingly recognise the face of childhood trauma – and the cost of silence – would go some way towards reducing the incidence of childhood trauma. We also want to increase trauma-specific professional development opportunities for practitioners in Western Australia, to support more clinicians learning about best-practice approaches in the treatment of those who have survived their childhood trauma. This way, COTWA could add value in supporting people who suffered childhood trauma to heal and thrive.

Where We Are Now

Person standing next to and point to a chart

COTWA was registered as a not-for-profit incorporated association in 2018, and has become a peak body for health professionals in Western Australia who work with adults, children, families, or groups of people who present with a lived experience of complex trauma.

We have established mutually beneficial strategic partnerships with angelhands Inc, and with Australia’s National Centre of Excellence for adult survivors of childhood abuse and neglect, the Blue Knot Foundation; and have been recognised as a health-promotions charity with Gift Recipient Status.

Going Forward

Person pushing a large arrow to the right

Our continued focus is community education, practitioner training and professional development opportunities, promotion of internationally recognised best-practice guidelines for service delivery, and collaborative advocacy for those with a lived experience of complex trauma.

We have established an online spatial directory of complex trauma-trained practitioners for those seeking best practice treatment, and plan to expand it to include other services which have demonstrated they operate in accordance with trauma-informed principles. It is our intention to offer COTWA-accredited courses for Western Australian businesses and service providers who would like to become recognised as trauma-aware.

Principles of trauma informed care: safety, trust, choice, empowerment, collaboration, and respect

We will continue to provide WA-based and affordable professional development opportunities for practitioners, with internationally recognised experts in the treatment of people with a history of complex trauma.

Underpinning everything we do are the principles of trauma-informed care - Safety, trust, choice, empowerment, collaboration, and respect.

About the Board

Photo of Bronwen Griffiths

Dr Kate Burton

Chairperson

Kate’s interest in trauma began as a postgraduate student in the UK over twenty years ago. Following completing a doctorate in complex trauma and addiction, she retrained in counselling and family therapy, and joined the mental health field in 2015. Kate has a special interest in dissociative disorders and narcissistic abuse recovery; and in 2021 founded a clinic specialising in Complex PTSD and neurodivergence.

Kate is a published academic, an international and guest speaker, and is regularly asked to provide media commentary in relation to mental health and neurodivergence. She has held a position as an invited academic providing consultancy in relation to trauma and student well being, and prior to joining COTWA, was the co-founder of a non-profit organisation focusing on education reform. Kate is a passionate advocate for raising awareness in relation to the necessity of a trauma-informed approach across all sectors. She also comes to COTWA from a position of lived experience.

Kate is the mother of two young adults, and when she’s not working, you’ll find her pottering around her home tending to her rescue animals, dancing along to music in her kitchen, or curled up with a cup of tea and a good book.

Photo of Kirsty Pratt

Steven Sartain

Vice Chairperson

Steve is a dynamic, executive leader and an accomplished aviator with over 33 years’ aviation operations and management experience, 21 of which are specific to Search and Rescue (SAR) aeromedical operations.  He brings to COTWA his experiences with front-line complex-trauma exposure and management through his many years flying combat search and rescue in the military, as well as through his current position as the Manger of Western Australia’s Emergency Rescue Helicopter Service for the Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

Steve brings the highest standards of integrity, vast operational leadership, and strategic planning experience on the global stage from both his military and civilian / commercial backgrounds.  He also volunteers as an officer and not-for-profit board member of Australia’s first and only U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 12163, which supports Veterans and their families in Western Australia.

Photo of Kirsty Pratt

Kirsty Pratt

Treasurer

Kirsty comes to the complex-trauma space through lived experience, which has been the driving force for many years of powerful advocacy and political activism in support of survivors. In 2017/18 Kirsty staged a parliamentary sit-in, leading to important law reform for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. This law reform directly led to an abrupt change in career direction for Kirsty, who is now the Co-ordinator for a team of Abuse Law specialists at a leading WA personal injury law firm.  Awarded for “always sticking up for the little guy” and for her strong community engagement through her work, Kirsty has twice shared a podium with Erin Brockovich and has delivered speeches several times at TEDx events.

Outside of work and volunteering, Kirsty enjoys spending time with her husband and daughter, attending the cricket and football, or watching science documentaries together.

Photo of Bronwen Griffiths

Emmett Aster

Secretary

Emmett is an emerging multi-disciplinary artist with a knack for organisation, having spent the last four years in various secretarial, and administrative positions. He also works with neurodivergent children and teenagers in a mentoring and tutoring role.

Primarily working in the arts sector, Emmett is particularly passionate about the connective power of art and storytelling in processing and healing from trauma. Their arts company, ‘perhaps, a theatre company.’, seeks to create space for others (particularly the marginalised and underrepresented) to share their stories.

Emmett also has a special interest in the role complex trauma plays in the lives of queer and neurodivergent individuals. He is currently a creative honours student UWA, exploring the ways in which the ‘trauma of the closet’ can shape queer relationships.

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David Edwards

Advisor to the Board: Business Development

David is a graduate of Leadership WA/Skillsbank, and sought to contribute his leadership and business acumen to a cause that aligned with his values; something that was both pioneering and innovative; and most importantly, community focussed. He found a welcoming home at the COTWA board.

David has pioneered change in fields as diverse as the television and music industry; renewable energy generation; regional service delivery; and science mega-projects such as the Square Kilometer Array.

Currently focussed on the transformation of the energy sector, David contributes to several influential federal working groups, while leading research and development into future smart energy networks. His role in digital strategy and innovation brings a wealth of experience to COTWA.

David displays a rare combination of sharp intellect, boundless curiosity, genuine kindness, and practical creativity. He has a neat habit of asking probing questions in a non-threatening spirit of solidarity…and then following up the answer with another one.

An International speaker, ardent swimmer, music lover, published author, and father of three, David is also a survivor of complex trauma; and an advocate for positive change in the field of mental health and trauma recovery.

Photo of Sonia Smuts

Sonia Smuts

Advisor to the Board: Clinical Service Delivery

Sonia trained as a clinical psychologist in South Africa, and joined the mental-health community in Western Australia in 2006.

In 2014, she volunteered to convene and coordinate the Perth Complex Trauma Mental Health Professionals Network (MHPN), to offer opportunities for other clinicians to learn more about complex trauma. From these meetings, Sonia and Ana and Vivien discovered a shared passion for better service delivery for people with a lived experience of complex trauma; and also that they made a good team!

With the addition of a number of additional board members – notably those with better business skills than the average clinical psychologist – they started Complex Trauma WA (COTWA) in 2018 and Sonia served as founding chairperson for the first few years.

In 2023, post COVID realities made it apparent that COTWA needed a fresh approach – and fresh legs! – to continue its important work in the WA community, and she handed the baton to the new board. She remains dedicated to ensuring that all clinicians on COTWA’s Spatial Directory continue to meet Blue Knot Foundation’s international best-practice standards for trauma-trained service delivery.

Photo of Ana Santos

Ana Santos

Advisor to the Board: Training & Accreditation

Ana Santos is a registered clinical psychologist in private practice, and one of the founding members of COTWA.

She is an expert in Trauma and Psychological First Aid, and has worked with the United Nations services in Kosovo and East-Timor, as well as the Portuguese Red Cross, fire-fighters, police forces, and correctional services in this regard.

Ana is passionate about psychology, and making psychological and neuropsychological principles accessible to people in everyday contexts. She has facilitated group workshops across Europe, Africa, and Australia, and has extensive experience working with diverse populations across the life span.

Ana and her family loves singing and making music; and in between everything, she is training a much-loved Labrador Retriever puppy to become a therapy dog.

Photo of Vivien Bainbridge

Vivien Bainbridge

Advisor to the Board: Prevention

Vivien became involved with COTWA in its infancy, as it slowly differentiated from the Mental Health Professionals Network interested in Complex Trauma.

Initially trained and working as an academic, Vivien subsequently realised that her real interest lay with people and their extraordinary capacity to survive. As a scientist and clinician, Vivien’s growth has always included a focus on the impact of complex trauma – in particular, the ways in which different traumata at different ages affect the growing individual, their developmental trajectory, and their sense of self; and secondly, the protective factors which seem to mitigate what would often appear to be almost indescribable horrors.

Vivien is a member of the management committee for the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (AAIMH). In addition to her clinical experience over 25 years, many more years of life experience of all sorts, a passion to understand the human condition, and an ability to walk alongside those who need a hand; Vivien is passionate about the prevention of harm to children.

Board Profile Image Lynette Henderson Yates

Lynn Henderson-Yates

Advisor to the Board: Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander matters

Lynn has worked in the Aboriginal sector for the past 42 years, including in her role as CEO at Derby Aboriginal Health Services. She is well-known in Aboriginal communities in WA (and beyond), and also to non-Aboriginal people whose work involves Aboriginal people. She offers an invaluable perspective of life in Aboriginal communities across decades – not only as a survivor, advocate, and service provider; but also as it pertains to the influence of various political parties and associated Zeitgeist, the reconciliation movement, the impact of Australia’s advancing economy, and global and national trends in technology advancements that affect Aboriginal people in particular ways. Lynn works from a positive, strengths-based position. She is collaborative, and believes that people can only achieve great things by working together – without blame – for a common purpose. She is a good listener, forward-thinking, inclusive, and she looks for the good in people. 

Lynn is a bit of a workaholic, and she never really ‘stops’. She has recently moved back to Bunbury, but her roots run deep in the Kimberley and she still regularly visits her mother in Derby.

Our Vision

A healthy community of thriving individuals

Our Purpose

To reduce complex trauma through increasing awareness, collaboration and trauma-informed competencies in Western Australia.

Strategic Priorities

  1. Increased awareness of and sensitivity to complex trauma in the community
  2. Encouraging and supporting trauma-informed services
  3. Increasing trauma-specific treatment expertise
  4. Building a sustainable organisation, which includes efficient and effective financial processes and risk-management strategies; responsible business policies; and diversifying streams of revenue.

Values in Action

Generosity We live with empathy and compassion; honour difference; and have a whole-community perspective.
Courage We value curiosity; seek to understand; and persevere for what’s right.
Collaboration We find new ways of working, to cooperatively share resources and knowledge; and prioritise co-investment and interdependence.
Integrity We have high standards for honesty, being trustworthy, safety and boundaries.
Accountability We set a high premium on transparency; self-awareness; and courageous conversations.
Principles of Probity We respect the principles of probity with regard to our financial administration and use of donated money:

  • acting fairly, impartially and with integrity
  • being accountable and transparent
  • being trustworthy and acting lawfully
  • managing conflicts of interest
  • securing commercially sensitive and confidential information

Frequently Asked Questions

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