Andrea Darr, director of the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice, started the Handle With Care program in response to the opioid crisis, poverty, neonatal abstinence syndrome and transience issues involving children in her state. HWC has spread to several states, including Kentucky. (Photo by Jim Robertson)
A new program designed to help school-aged children exposed to trauma is being introduced to Kentucky’s law enforcement and school districts this fall. The program is known as Handle With Care (HWC).
HWC is a West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice (WVCCJ) program that has law enforcement and school systems teaming up.
According to the WVCCJ website, the model is simple.
“If a law enforcement officer encounters a child during a call, that child’s name and three words, Handle With Care, are forwarded to the school/childcare agency before the school bell rings the next day,” the website reads. “The school implements individual, class and whole school trauma-sensitive curricula so that traumatized children are ‘Handled With Care.’ If a child needs more intervention, on-site trauma-focused mental healthcare is available at the school.”
The Kentucky State Police is in the process of developing a HWC partnership with school systems in Madison County, said KSP Lt. Col. Jeremy Slinker.
“I attended a presentation on Handle With Care in Atlanta a few years ago,” Slinker said. “I strongly believe the program would be an additional way to improve our communities while caring for our most vulnerable and important members – our youth.”
West Virginia launched the nation’s first HWC program in 2013, because officials saw the need that the opioid crisis, poverty, neonatal abstinence syndrome and transience was having on students.
Since its inception, several states have adopted the program, with Kentucky becoming the latest.
Andrea Darr, director of the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice, the agency that oversees the program, said many others share her state’s problems, including Kentucky.
“We have many of the same problems,” Darr said. “These are the reasons we had to do something to help the children of our state. Toxic environments, poverty, racism … all of this has a tremendous effect on these children.”
When police are called to a home, children, specifically those who are school-aged, end up suffering, often in silence. If it goes unnoticed, it could lead to behavioral issues for teachers and school administrators. Additionally, it could become a law enforcement matter as some students could begin making poor life choices that cause potential legal problems.
“Research tells us that trauma is going to hurt their ability to learn and build relationships,” Darr said. “If an incident such as domestic violence takes place at home, the odds are the next day, the child comes to school, and they don’t have their homework, they’re acting out, or maybe they are hungry, but they’re not learning. A high percentage of the time, if the teacher isn’t properly trained. They are in the child’s face asking, ‘What is wrong with you?’ So it stacks more trauma on top of the existing trauma.”
How it Works
Handle With Care has three components:
Trauma-informed school training for teachers and school staff and
On-site school therapy provided by local mental health providers.
In terms of the notification, a law enforcement agency’s jobs is to notify the school system when officers encounter a potentially traumatic incident when children are present.
Law enforcement agencies and school systems should communicate and work together to determine the best method of notification. Once that is established, all the law enforcement agency has to do is collect names, ages and school the student attends, and pass that information on to the school system liaison.
No additional information, such as incident details, is given, Darr stressed.
The key to HWC’s success is a symbiotic relationship between law enforcement and schools.
“The program is about helping that kid succeed, and assisting teachers in helping that kid to succeed,” Darr explained. “But we cannot do it without law enforcement.”
Once the school systems receive the notification, the process is clear, said Jon Duffy, director of counseling and testing at Kanawha County (W.Va.) Schools.
“Before the next school day, school principals receive a notification advising that the students involved should be ‘handled with care,’” he said. “An email is sent to the principal and counselors. We provide phone numbers and email addresses to every one of our principals and counselors at all of our 64 schools. We get a copy at the central office and our superintendent emails the principal as a follow up to see how it was acted upon.”
From there, teachers know to keep a subtle eye on the student, Duffy added.
“(The teacher) will take note, and if (the student) is falling asleep or looks really tired, they might ask if the student is OK,” he continued. “We need to figure out if they need breakfast or if they may need a nap because they didn’t get enough sleep. It’s a discreet finger on the pulse.”
The key from the school system standpoint is for the teacher to be a silent observer, of sorts, Darr added.
“It doesn’t mean you approach the child,” she emphasized. “A lot of kids have been doing this so long that you’ll never see anything different from them. (The teacher is) there to be proactive instead of reactive. It is much easier to prevent a meltdown than to clean it all up.”
While HWC isn’t mandatory, State School Security Marshal Ben Wilcox urges law enforcement agencies and school systems to get on board.
“We’re just trying to get as much information out to the schools on how the program works,” Wilcox said. “It is a simplistic approach to solve a complex problem. The information we are utilizing comes directly from the West Virginia model.”
Additionally, Slinker said everything boils down to helping out and understanding the needs of the children.
“I think it’s important and something that law enforcement needs to implement into training,” he offered. “(Law enforcement) should recognize that our presence on some incidents can be traumatic for a child, and utilize our training and the Handle With Care program to minimize it.”
The HWC program is a win-win for everyone, Wilcox said.
“The program will benefit everyone that is involved with the safety, security, protection and education of our children,” Wilcox explained. “If the people who are tasked with taking care of our most valuable resources are given up-to-date information that will assist them in protecting a child, then everyone is benefited in the long run.”
To learn more about the West Virginia’s Handle With Care program, visit handlewithcarewv.org.