A third-grade girl who was a victim of emotional abuse and a witness to domestic violence told her counselor that on the previous night, her stepfather “yelled at mommy that it was my fault he couldn’t live with her and that I was a worthless little liar.”
“I closed my ears and told myself, ‘I am worthy, I am worthy, I am worthy,’” the girl told her counselor.
That story was retold by Andrea Darr, director of the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice, a division of the West Virginia State Police.
The girl had been matched up with a counselor as a result of the Center for Children’s Justice’s Handle with Care program.
The program was in the spotlight during President Barack Obama’s forum at the East End Family Resource Center on Wednesday.
Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster told Obama about the program, which began at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary in 2013. He told the president how Charleston officers now notify schools in the city when children are present at traumatic events, such as domestic violence situations, so that school staff will know to “handle that child with care today.”
“They’re there to arrest the so-called bad guy, then they leave, but who is looking out for the children — the collateral damage?” Webster said.
Obama called it a “really smart program.”
“I gotta tell you, before I came down, I hadn’t heard about it,” he said, “and I’d really like to see us advertise this more across the country and adopt this as a best practice.”
Others have been impressed, as well, Darr said.
She said the program has been quickly spreading throughout the state since it began. The ultimate goal is for Handle with Care to be expanded to every school in the state.
It has spread countywide in Kanawha County. It is also now countywide in Putnam, Cabell, Calhoun and Morgan counties.
Wood, Greenbrier and Logan counties have pilot schools. McDowell, Nicholas, Monongalia and Ohio counties have scheduled trainings, and several other counties have expressed interest.
Both U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and Darr have promoted the program nationally. States that have expressed interest include California, Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina, New Mexico, Arkansas and Wyoming, Darr said.
Appalachian HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) is also interested in spreading the program to areas it serves in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
One component of Handle with Care is the notification system. Police officers let schools know after they respond to traumatic events with children present, although though they don’t provide specific details about the event.
As a result, schools make accommodations, such as allowing children to take naps, take a test later or referring them to counseling instead of disciplining them if they act out.
But Handle with Care has more parts than the notification system that people are familiar with, Darr explained.
Schools that participate also arrange for on-site counseling for traumatized students when needed, and teachers are trained on the impact of trauma on students, Darr said.
Handle with Care traces back to 2009, when the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency published a study on children’s exposure to violence that served as a wake-up call throughout the country. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder launched the Defending Childhood Initiative in 2010.
In West Virginia, the West Virginia Children’s Justice Task Force and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia started a subcommittee to explore the issue and how to approach it, which became the West Virginia Defending Childhood Initiative Task Force. Members looked at national Defending Childhood Initiative initiatives and other programs throughout the country, and used the programs, especially one called Safe Start launched in Brockton, Mississippi, to inform the development of the Handle with Care program.
Policy makers, practitioners, law enforcement, prosecutors, educators, mental health providers, child protective services workers, probation officers, court personnel, school nurses, school attendance directors and counselors all contributed.
Darr said Handle with Care signals a new approach to child trauma, versus the old approach of leaving it to the police and child protective services, essentially expecting someone else to take care of it.
“This child is traumatized,” she said. “What are we going to do to help them? What are we all going to do to help them, because we all have a part in this.”
In the spring of 2013, Lt. Chad Napier of the Charleston Police Department helped convince his agency to take on the project, and Janet Allio, a school nurse, helped arrange for the pilot program at Mary C. Snow.
Allio said as of September 2015, there have been 527 incidents involving 959 kids across the county. She said organizers aim to help children continue to learn even after being exposed to trauma, provide emotional support and build the children’s self-esteem.
“Our goal is for them to ultimately be successful, contributing citizens,” she said.
Napier said the program also aims to keep kids from making the wrong choices.
“I think if you go back and look, a lot of times we end up not dealing with trauma when kids are young,” he said. “That trauma festers and then that’s the ones that end up turning to addiction.”
On April 1, after overwhelming support, the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice was created at the State Police to organize the expansion of the program. A Handle with Care website was also created.
In a statement provided by Darr, Huntington Police Chief Joe Ciccarelli said the program was easy to implement.
“We are saving the next generation of children from falling into potentially criminal activity, health-related issues, a whole myriad of problems that can be solved by simply having this program in place,” he said.
In another statement, Todd Alexander, assistant superintendent of Cabell County schools, said being able to respond to traumatic situations “in a proactive manner and make sure that the kid is getting the follow-up services that frankly before this program weren’t there, has been a real positive for Cabell County schools.”