The program is very simple: Law enforcement officers at the scene of crime, violence, and/or abuse identify children at the scene who have been exposed to trauma. The child’s name, age, and school are sent by law enforcement in a confidential notice to the child’s school before the child starts school the next day. No information is shared 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 principal, 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.
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.
Handle With Care is tailored to reflect the needs and issues affecting children. The initiative, a result of a collaborative effort of key stakeholders and partners, builds upon the success of proven programs throughout the country. The goal of the initiative is to prevent children’s exposure to trauma and violence, mitigate negative effects experienced by children’s exposure to trauma, and to increase knowledge and awareness of this issue.
The program began in West Virginia. 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. In Illinois, the School Safety Working Group of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force made the Handle With Care program one of its school safety recommendations in 2019, not as a mandate, but as a best practice partnership between local school districts and local law enforcement agencies.
The Defending Childhood Initiative (DCI) Task Force decided to start with a pilot school and a pilot law enforcement agency in Charleston, WV. In the spring of 2013, the Charleston Police Department helped sell the program to the department’s 168 officers. 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 in West Virginia. However, 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. Now, law enforcement agencies routinely call and interact with the schools. Teachers are better able to address issues in the classroom. Mental health providers are 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.