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.

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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

How Complex Trauma WA got started

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

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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

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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 Sonia Smuts

Sonia Smuts


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

In her private-practice work, she met a number of people whose initial presenting problems turned out to have their roots in early childhood trauma – and realised that she was woefully unprepared to offer the kind of help they needed. Also, even though there were many excellent support services available, it often proved virtually impossible for her clients to access these.

Growing up in a country where people rely on self-determination rather than optimal government support, Sonia is very aware of the many privileges and opportunities in Australia. So, where others may notice weakness and deficiencies (and where better-equipped angels fear to tread!), Sonia’s proactive temperament meant that she had to pack away her introverted tendencies, and start talking to strangers.

She volunteered to convene and coordinate the Perth Complex Trauma Mental Health Professionals Network, to offer opportunities for other clinicians to also learn more about complex trauma. Over cups of tea after 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 - Sonia has been privileged to work with a growing group of wonderfully devoted volunteers to bring COTWA’s purpose to fruition.

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David Edwards

Vice Chairperson

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.

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Kirsty Pratt


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.

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Bronwen Griffiths


Bronwen has extensive experience in administration and executive support. Her aim is to imbue the workplace with calm, efficient order; and to use her skills and experience to provide high-quality administrative support to the COTWA Board. 

She has deep compassion and empathy for those with a lived experience of complex trauma and is genuinely motivated to improve the healing journey for survivors, having been witness to the struggles of people who have been close to her heart.

She is passionate about personal growth, animal welfare, the environment, and good grammar! Bronwen loves to cook, and spend time with her animals. She loves a good book, good music, and a long lunch!

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Ana Santos

Training and Accreditation Subcommittee

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

Clinical Subcommittee (Metro)

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 brings to the board 25 years as a clinician, 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.

Photo of Diana Phillips

Diana Phillips

Clinical Subcommittee (Rural - South)

Diana has lived in the South West of WA for 40 years, and has been working as a psychodynamic psychotherapist in private practice for 25 years, dealing with deep childhood issues and the impact of these on people’s lives.

She became aware of the unique treatment needs of survivors of childhood trauma about 15 years ago; and has since become passionate about supporting people with a lived experience of complex trauma.

She joined the COTWA board to offer her input and experience as a rural clinician. Her aim is to help inform and support initiatives that will also address the needs of those people who do not have ready access to complex-trauma support networks or professional-development opportunities often only offered in the major metropolitan areas.

In her spare time, Diana loves and cares for her children and grandchildren, loves reading, practices Tai Chi, loves riding and walking and meditation.

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Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander Representative

Profile coming soon...

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Clinical Subcommittee (Rural - North)

Profile coming soon...

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.

Annual Reports

Annual Report 2020


Frequently Asked Questions

Coming Soon

As soon as we are asked some questions, we'll answer them

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