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 program is very simple: Law enforcement officers at the scene of crime, violence and/or abuse are identifying children at the scene who have been exposed to trauma. The child’s name, age and school is sent by Law Enforcement in a confidential notice to the child’s school before the child starts school the next day. There is no information being given except for the child’s name and these three words “handle with care”. Schools are learning how to be trauma sensitive and identifying interventions that will mitigate the negative effects of trauma on the children. So if the child acts out, the teacher has a heads up and might send the child to the counselor instead of the principle, give the child extra time to do a project or postpone a test. When school interventions are not sufficient, therapists can provide services on site at the school for children who need therapy.
In 2009 the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention published a study on children’s exposure to violence and it was a wakeup call to see just how prevalent children’s exposure to violence is in their homes, schools and communities. Nationally, Attorney General Eric Holder launched the Defending Childhood initiative on September 23, 2010, to address a national crisis: the exposure of America’s children to violence as victims and as witnesses. Locally, the WV Children’s Justice Task Force in collaboration with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the South District of West Virginia formed a subcommittee in 2011to explore programing to look at the problem of children’s exposure to violence and to look for programming that could help mitigate the negative effects of trauma on children.
The DCI Task Force comprised of policy makers and practioners, spent 2012 working with law enforcement, prosecutors, educators, mental health providers, child protective services, probation officers, court personnel, school nurses, school attendance directors, and counselors to develop the program, write protocols for law enforcement officers and school staff, and to create guidelines for the programs implementation. Policy makers and attorneys for all the agency’s reviewed the proposals and the agency administrators signed off on the project and we had what we needed to address the needs of children traumatized by violence in their homes, schools and communities. Three words . . . Handle with Care.
The DCI Task Force decided to start with a pilot school and a pilot law enforcement agency in Charleston, WV. In the spring of 2013 Chad Napier with the Charleston Police Department helped sell the program to his department of 168 officers. Janet Allio, the school nurse at the pilot school, Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary arranged time for a school wide presentation on the program and a book study on Helping Traumatized Children Learn.
Initially, HWC experienced hurdles. But to date, 527 notices have been provided involving 959 children! School interventions are enough to help 90% of the identified children but for others on site counseling is needed. Approximately 10% or 130 are now receiving or have received vital counseling services on-site at school. Additionally, the relationships between education and Law Enforcement have been greatly improved. The notices became an invitation to collaboration. Law Enforcement routinely call and interact with the schools. Teachers were better able to address issues in the classroom. Mental Health providers were able to see children interacting in their school environments. Child Protective Services are often given courtesy HWC notices just to keep them in the loop. Handle with care become a magnet to assist agencies in working together, build community trust and most importantly help children struggling with the effects of trauma.
- There are very few challenges HWC encounters. Lack of resources, while always a challenge, has never been a barrier to implementation. The HWC program was started and continues without a funding stream. Agency’s allowed employees to contribute their time to the effort to the program. Resources were leveraged to provide technical assistance and travel.
- Finding time for school to do the strategic planning for HWC in addition to their many other training mandates can be difficult but schools who have implemented HWC have found the 60 minutes of training is well worth the benefits.
- Law Enforcement initially saw HWC as additional paperwork, but when they see how little effort is needed and how the children benefited, they were very willing to participate.
- One of the biggest barriers is finding mental health providers in rural areas. We simply need more mental health providers in the state.
- Maintaining fidelity to the program is essential.