In 2013, the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice launched a program called Handle With Care. The collaborative program is meant to help children who’ve experienced abuse, neglect or other types of trauma succeed in school. The program that started on the West Side of Charleston is now expanding across the state and in other communities across the nation.
Mary C. Snow Elementary School is located in a neighborhood where it can be stressful to be a child. The West Side of Charleston has gained a bad reputation for drug crimes and violence, and in 2014 the city of Charleston as a whole saw an increase in both criminal activity and violent crimes.
While these crimes are usually committed by adults, that doesn’t mean children aren’t affected by them. And that’s where the Handle With Care Program comes into play. If a child is exposed to crime, violence or abuse, police notify the principal and school counselor by the start of the next school day.
"When I first heard about the Handle with Care Program, I thought, that’s the program for us because 75% of our children are in some form on traumatised environment on a day to day situation," said Janet Allio, the school nurse at Mary C. Snow Elementary School
It's not always clear when something traumatic has occurred in a student’s life. The first step in the Handle with Care program is when police officers send schools a form after they respond to traumatic events with children present.
The second step is when the school’s staff figure out out what resources a child may need if they have experienced a traumatic event. Sometimes, it’s talking with the school counselor- or going to the health center for extra sleep, or spending time in the library with the school’s therapy dog, Paca.
Or, if the parent gives permission, the child might also be matched up with a counselor who travels to the school.
For children who are left to deal with trauma all on their own, there can be fatal consequences.
A report called the Adverse Childhood Experiences study found that children who experienced trauma early in life were more likely to abuse substances, smoke, overeat. Children who experience abusive and stressful situations could lose as much as 20 years off their life, compared with children who grow up in stable, loving families.
But teachers and other adults in a child’s life can help, if they know what to look out for.
“Life does happen. And it’s teaching them how to handle things when life does happen,” says Katrina Helm, a special education teacher at Mary C. Snow Elementary.
“That we can still function, we can get the love, we can get the support the nurture that we need. Basically when they come here and we get the Handle with Care we look at what do they need and how can we fill in from there.”
Helm recently visited a meeting with other teachers from across West Virginia.
“And one of those teachers brought up that there’s so much trauma going on in their schools and they don’t know how to handle it. And they don’t know what resources do we tap into. This is an ongoing problem, it’s a growing problem, and one thing they were emphasizing there is they’re seeing it more and more in their younger kids. And that’s what we’re seeing here is we’re seeing it in our younger kids.”
Thus far, the Handle With Care Program has been supported without any extra funding- except for the resources already available to schools and children who need mental care.
The program is part of a collaboration between the state Department of Health and Human Resources, U.S Attorney Booth Goodwin’s office and the West Virginia State Police.
These groups are now working to help bring Handle With Care to communities throughout West Virginia. There are also similar programs that have sprouted in other states. When president Obama visited West Virginia last year to talk about drug abuse across the nation, he took note of the Handle with Care Program.
“I’d really like to see us advertise this more across the country and adopt this as a best practice,” said President Obama.
With drug overdose rates in West Virginia the highest in the country, Katrina Helm says more and more teachers are noticing children who are dealing with abuse and neglect. “So it’s definitely more prominent now than before. I think before we always thought it was just isolated to West Side Elementary.”
But as drug abuse and domestic violence continue to barrage families across West Virginia, there simply aren’t enough resources to help children deal with trauma. Harmony Health Services, which provides mental health therapy to the students at Mary C. Snow Elementary, is working to get a mobile mental health care facility for some of the remote areas in West Virginia.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.