By Elizabeth Darling, Commissioner, Administration on Children, Youth and Families
The scenario may be familiar to you. It’s 1:00AM, and law enforcement arrives on the scene of a domestic violence incident at a family’s home where children are present. Law enforcement addresses the domestic violence concerns with the adults, but because the children in the home were not physically harmed, they are not assessed and do not receive services or interventions. The children arrive at school the next day physically and emotionally exhausted, and potentially exhibiting disruptive behaviors resulting from the trauma that they experienced the previous night. They may complain of physical ailments, experience emotional meltdowns, or act out towards their peers. In short, they are in no shape to effectively engage in classroom learning, and neither teachers nor school staff know why. Though many professionals may have seen this scenario play out in their communities in the past, it doesn’t have to be this way in the future. In communities throughout the country, child trauma is being prevented and addressed through the use of three simple words: “Handle with Care.”
Research shows that exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as witnessing violence in the home or community, can have lasting negative effects on health, well-being, and opportunity. ACEs can also lead to toxic stress, which may change brain development and impact attention, decision-making, and learning, all of which are crucial for educational success. However, we also know that ACEs can be prevented through targeted strategies such as interventions to lessen immediate and long-term harms. One such intervention that focuses on trauma-informed responses through a partnership between law enforcement, schools, and mental health providers is the Handle with Care (HWC) program.
Created in response to the 2009 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention report on children’s exposure to violence, the HWC program aims to ensure that children who are exposed to crime, violence, or abuse receive appropriate interventions so they can succeed in school to the best of their ability. According to Andrea Darr, Director of the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice, which facilitates the expansion of HWC, “HWC is about helping children succeed regardless of whatever hard place they are in.” Originally piloted in Charleston, West Virginia in 2013, HWC has expanded not only within West Virginia, but in communities throughout the country. The West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice provides HWC trainings for communities using funds from the Children’s Justice Act grant, a program administered by the Children’s Bureau, which aims to improve the assessment, investigation, and prosecution of cases of child maltreatment in a manner that limits additional trauma to children.
The HWC model is simple, yet powerful. When law enforcement encounters a child at the scene of an incident, they identify the child and send a notice to their school that they were involved in a police incident the night before and may have academic or behavioral problems that day. The notice includes no details about the incident, and contains only the child’s name and three words: Handle with Care. The school receives the notice before the start of the school day, so that staff are prepared to “handle the child with care” and respond in a trauma-informed way. Schools with HWC in place also partner with mental health professionals to provide on-site therapy services for children if necessary.
In this way, HWC identifies children most at-risk so they can receive a trauma-informed response and have access to services should the need arise, thus improving their academic, social-emotional, and behavioral outcomes. In many communities, the only children that are identified and provided with services after being at the scene of a police incident are those on which law enforcement has made a mandated report. However, many cases do not meet this threshold, meaning that the trauma experienced by these children goes untreated, and services are not put in place to mitigate potential negative outcomes as a result of their trauma exposure. HWC is one way to ensure that children exposed to ACEs receive trauma-informed supports and any necessary interventions and mental health services to prevent negative outcomes and help them reach their full potential. Get additional information on the HWC program.