A recent national survey of the incidence and prevalence of children’s exposure to violence and trauma revealed that 60% of American children have been exposed to violence, crime or abuse. Forty percent were direct victims of two or more violent acts. Prolonged exposure to violence and trauma can seriously undermine children’s ability to focus, behave appropriately, and learn in school. It often leads to school failure, truancy, suspension or expulsion, dropping out, or involvement in the juvenile justice system.
The West Virginia Defending Childhood Initiative, commonly referred to as “Handle With Care,” is tailored to reflect the needs and issues affecting children in West Virginia. The Initiative, a result of a collaborative effort of key stakeholders and partners, builds upon the success of proven programs throughout the country. The goal of the Initiative is to prevent children’s exposure to trauma and violence, mitigate negative affects experienced by children’s exposure to trauma, and to increase knowledge and awareness of this issue.
When Jackson, Michigan first heard about Handle With Care it seemed the perfect fit with what we were doing in so many of our collaborative areas. The goals and the work of the program would allow for children and youth to remain in school and in their classrooms for better learning, which is supported by our Jackson County School Justice Partnership and our Cradle to Career; it would allow for all members of our community to understand and respond to trauma in a positive manner, which is supported by our Trauma Informed Community Collaborative; and it provides for the possibility of on-site mental health services at the schools, which is supported by our work with Project AWARE in Jackson (and Hillsdale) Counties.
Model Handle With Care (“HWC”) programs promote safe and supportive homes, schools and communities that protect children, and help traumatized children heal and thrive. HWC promotes school-community partnerships aimed at ensuring that children who are exposed to trauma in their home, school or community receive appropriate interventions to help them achieve academically at their highest levels despite whatever traumatic circumstances they may have endured. The ultimate goal of HWC is to help students to succeed in school. Regardless of the source of trauma, the common thread for effective intervention is the school. Research now shows that trauma can undermine children’s ability to learn, form relationships, and function appropriately in the classroom. HWC programs support children exposed to trauma and violence through improved communication and collaboration between law enforcement, schools and mental health providers, and connects families, schools and communities to mental health services.
“Handle with Care” is an initiative that was piloted in Jackson County at all schools and involving all law enforcement agencies within the county. The schools, located throughout the county, all have children and families that experience many different types of trauma each day. As of August 2017 the initiative is fully functional county wide in Jackson County.
"Handle with Care" provides the school with a “heads up” when a child has been identified at the scene of a traumatic event. It could be a meth lab explosion, a domestic violence situation, a shooting in the neighborhood, witnessing a malicious wounding, a drug raid at the home, a motor vehicle accident, etc. Police are trained to identify children at the scene, find out where they go to school and send the school a confidential email or fax that simply says . . . “Handle Johnny with care”. That’s it. No other details.
In addition to providing notice, officers also build positive relationships with students by interacting on a regular basis. They visit classrooms, stop by for lunch, and simply chat with students to help promote positive relationships and perceptions of officers.
Teachers, many of whom have been trained on the impact of trauma on learning and are incorporating many interventions to mitigate the negative impact of trauma for identified students, including: sending students to the nurse/clinic to rest (when a HWC has been received and the child is having trouble staying awake or focusing); re-teaching lessons; postponing testing; small group counseling by school counselors; and referrals to counseling, social service or advocacy programs. As we move forward, the schools may also implement school or district-wide interventions to help create a trauma sensitive school (Greeters; pairing students with an adult mentor in the school; utilization of a therapy dog; “thumbs up/thumbs down” to indicate if a student is having a good day or a bad day; and “Chill” Passes).
When identified students exhibit continued behavioral or emotional problems in the classroom, the counselor or principal refers the parent to a counseling agency which provides treatment and potentially trauma-focused therapy. Currently, there are three partnering agencies providing trauma focused support and the plan is to have the support on-site at the school. Once the counseling agency has received a referral and parental consent, students may then receive on-site counseling.
The counseling is provided to children and families at times which are least disruptive for the student. The mental health therapists may also participate in meetings deemed necessary by school personnel, and as authorized by the child’s parent or guardian. Counselors and mental health therapists may provide assessments of the child’s need, psychological testing, treatment recommendations, accommodation recommendations, and status updates to key school personnel as authorized by the child’s parent or guardian.
This program was developed with guidance and technical assistance from the West Virginia Defending Childhood Initiative who also worked with the Massachusetts Advocates for Children: Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, in collaboration with Harvard Law School and the Task Force on Children Affected by Domestic Violence. Special thanks to Andrea Darr.