The self-proclaimed “Kevin Hart of crackheads” held an audience of 280 people rapt at the 20th anniversary celebration of the partnership between the Delaware County Department of Human Services and Magellan Behavioral Health of Pennsylvania last Wednesday at the Drexelbrook.
Keynote speaker Tonier Cain, paced in an invisible small box on the dais, using her hands for emphasis, while she shared details of her horrific childhood, 19 years of prostitution, homelessness and drug addiction, and, finally, her redemption.
“I don’t know if I move around because I have a lot of energy or it’s the crack in my system from 13 years ago,” said Cain.
Cain was the subject of the 2010 documentary “Healing Neen,” where she reflected on her childhood in Annapolis and how the cycle of child abuse resulted in her addiction to drugs. In 2014, she wrote a book about overcoming trauma and addiction.
Today, she is a globe-trotting advocate and authority providing counsel and inspiration to people in 100 countries and throughout the United States.
At nine years-old, she lived in an abusive household with a number of half brothers and sisters.
“My mother kept brining home babies. She would go take the trash out and two days later come back with a baby. I was thinking, you may not want to take trash out anytime soon…. “ Switching gears, she said, “We were left in the house (for) two or three days at a time.”
To dull the pain of abuse, Cain turned to alcohol despite only being a child.
“I believed if something bad happened to you it was because you were bad. I pushed it down and didn’t want anyone to know. I tucked the trauma away and as years went on it became almost impossible to deal with.
In her candid keynote speech, Cain stressed the importance of trauma informed care. She displayed her mug shots to show how someone can be transformed from being a person with 83 arrests and 66 convictions to speaking at corporate events and training social work professionals at academic institutions and conferences
The pivotal moment for Cain came when someone finally asked her, “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” or, in the case of one social worker who just simply “checked the boxes” beside a laundry list of social maladies.
“They were being the type of gardeners who cut the weeds instead of pulling out the roots. If you don’t expose the roots of the weed, eventually it’s going to choke the life out of all your flowers,” Cain relayed metaphorically. “Once someone was able to expose the root that caused the substance abuse, the mental health, the homelessness, and losing my children…trauma informed care helps them get to the core of it and heal,” she said.
Trauma-informed care is easy to provide. Cain said. The problem, however, is the culture shift that has to take place. “You are telling people they have to flip their system upside down and look at all the practices and be willing to say, ‘I have been willing to do things that caused harm, albeit unintentionally,’” she said.
“We’ve been working hard to make sure our providers are trauma informed and that we are doing trauma trainings across the system of care,” said Jonna L. DiStefano, administrator, County Office of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities. “It is something I don’t know (if) in the past we emphasized the impact of trauma like we do now. In the criminal justice system, trauma is key throughout. You need to ask the question, just like she said, ‘What happened to you?’”
“In reality, what does it matter what I call myself or what people call me? Now I’m able to change lives around the world. When you’ve been through everything I’ve been through, being called names doesn’t even bother you anymore. My job is that we can prevent people going into it as many years as I have. This is my purpose. I have to do what I can to show people there is hope,” Cain, a mother of four and today happily married, said.
During her speech, she showed a variety of slides to drive home her points. Among the slides were her mug shots. She used them to show “transformation.” She asked the audience rhetorically, “Would you be able to look at that person and see the me I am today? A lot of people say they would not.”