Handle with Care

Dr. Sandra Morgan:

There are big challenges that small children face every day. No one knows that better than the Foster Care community, from children, their case managers, and thousands of foster alums. Recently, we looked at the connection between substance abuse and human trafficking. As a pediatric nurse, I spent some time working night shift and still remembering a 14-year-old boy admitted at 2 a.m. as a result of being sold for drugs by a family member.

My favorite presentation at this year’s ensure justice conference was called “Handle with Care”. It has three qualities that make it valuable for you right where you are. It is simple. It is already tested. It is child trauma focused.

The program was launched at the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice which promotes and supports a statewide trauma informed response to child maltreatment and children’s exposure to violence.  The Center is housed in the Crimes Against Children Unit at the West Virginia State Police. Andrea Darr, director, calls West Virginia “ground zero” of the Opioid crisis and points to the overload of Drug Endangered Children. Research backs her up as we learn more and more about the risk for a child who has a family member with a substance abuse issue. While the conference offered other excellent expert trainings on addiction, trauma, and interventions, “Handle with Care” was the most doable first step a community could take away and implement for their school age children. HWC streamlines resources and minimizes duplicative efforts. It offers innovative best practices for helping mitigate the negative effects experienced by a child’s exposure to trauma. It does this by building a partnership between schools and law enforcement.

Here’s how it works. When a law enforcement officer encounters a child during a call, that child’s information is forwarded to school leadership before the school bell rings the next day. 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. No other information about the encounter with law enforcement is necessary. Those interacting with that student will understand if s/he shows up in wrinkled clothes from yesterday or without homework or breakfast, or withdrawn, or acting out. Staff and teachers will know to literally, handle with care! You can learn more about how to implement this program in your school at the Handle With Care website. You can hear from Andrea Darr at our endinghumantrafficking.org/podcast/167.

When we finished Day 1 of the Ensure Justice Conference, we asked our friend, Rhonda Sciortino, what it’s like to grow up with an addicted parent. As all of you who have read this column for awhile know, Rhonda uses her experience of being raised by a mentally ill man and an alcoholic and addicted woman to teach, to advocate, and to engage communities in helping kids and families in distress. Her message? “It takes only one sentence to change the trajectory of a child’s life. Sentences like, we’re glad you’re here. Please stay for dinner. Want to come with us? You’re really good at [fill in the blank]—notice something good and point it out. What you’re really doing when you include the kid who seems to never want to go home, the kid who you wish your children wouldn’t play with, is DIGNITY.

When you make eye contact, smile, and include kids who live in a dysfunctional, chaotic, or abusive environment, you are showing them how to interact in healthy relationships. You’re showing them what family should look like. You’re showing them how to behave properly. And most significantly, you’re showing them that they are worthy of being valued and included.

Never underestimate simple acts of kindness. Now, go change the world by making eye contact, smiling, and saying something kind to everyone with whom you interact.”