Trauma-informed Eval Week: A Flare for the Traumatic: How Careless Evaluation Can Retraumatize by Aaron Kates

Aaron Kates
Aaron Kates

My name is Aaron Kates, and I am a PhD candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Evaluation (IDPE) program at Western Michigan University. I am a psychotherapist, researcher, and independent evaluator.

“Has anyone ever had sex with you without your permission?”

The Guatemalan boy across the table from me was silent.

“Has anyone ever asked to take pictures of you in your underwear in exchange for money or anything of value?”


“I’m sorry. These questions are required by the government.”

He looked up at me. “Do you know how long I’m going to be here?”

It was my first job out of social work school. I was a therapist working with children who were fleeing Central America because of gang violence, abuse, or neglect. Most had accumulated a long list of traumatic experiences before making their way into our care. Looking back, I’m sure that the questions I asked upon meeting them the first time added yet another to that list.

Evaluation can be traumatic. Since moving on from this position, I don’t know how many refugee clients have told me, “I don’t want to talk about my past. I was asked about it too many times.” My work with these kids is just one example of how evaluation can be traumatic if not conducted with care for the participants. Below are some tips for avoiding these kinds of errors.

Tips for Avoiding Retraumatizing Pitfalls

#1: An Ounce of Prevention…

The simplest means for avoiding retraumatizing evaluation participants is to include them in evaluation design and implementation from the earliest stages. Adherents of Participatory, Utilization-Focused, Empowerment, and Social Justice Evaluation approaches incorporate this process. Including those who may be able to intuit the reactions of participants will safeguard the process from discovering later on that a particular question is offensive or retraumatizing.

#2: Engage in Developmental Meta-Evaluation

Developmental evaluation is an iterative process of evaluation that seeks to foster constant improvement, rather than seeking a summative judgment of a program. As evaluators, it is important that we adopt a similar stance to our evaluation work. We must never think that we have “arrived” at a perfect design. If a stakeholder tells us that an approach is traumatizing, we should be ready to listen and quick to change tack. Yes, it will be difficult. No, it won’t kill you.

#3: Follow a “Leave No Trace” Approach

Every good Boy or Girl Scout knows, when in the wilderness, “leave no trace.” Although an aspirational principle rather than an achievable goal, leaving nature as one finds it is of utmost importance in conservation. When working with traumatized populations, we should adopt a similar stance. Of course, we will have some effect whenever we collect data. But we should be collecting data with only a specific purpose in mind. Fewer data points mean fewer points of potential retraumatization. Before adding that question, ask, “Is this critical for the evaluation overall?”

Rad Resource:

Trauma-Informed Evaluation: Tip Sheet for Collecting Information

This week, AEA365 is hosting Trauma-informed Eval Week during which blog authors share lessons from and principles of trauma-informed evaluation. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.