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Combatting childhood trauma in W.Va. communities

By Sarah Sokol, Student, Reed College of Media, West Virginia University

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For five years, Mike Ryan has been working with young students at Mountainview Elementary School in Morgantown and during that time, he says his job has changed. 

“Kids are coming to school with so much more than they have in the past,” Ryan said. 

In a classroom of 30 students, Ryan says more than three-fourths of them have had at least one traumatic experience, whether at home or in their community, that can lead to long-term mental and physical health issues. And part of his job is to help those children and mitigate the damage.

Ryan is a part of Mountainview Elementary School’s Handle with Care program. Created in 2013 as a pilot under the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, the goal of Handle with Care is to open a channel of communication between law enforcement, schools, child care and mental health agencies that can intervene after a child has experienced a traumatic event outside of school. 

Ryan uses the example of a domestic disturbance. If law enforcement responds to that type of incident and finds a child at home, they notify the child’s school that an incident occurred, but they don’t share specific details about the event. Instead, administrators and teachers are simply told to “handle the child with care” the next day. 

Because the school and teachers are aware of the incident, Ryan explains, they will react differently if the child acts up in class or falls asleep during a lesson. 

“When we get those Handle with Care notices, [we] just make sure that our teachers are aware,” Ryan said, “not that anything has to be done specifically with those kids when we get those notices, but making sure that my school, the teachers are trauma-informed.”

Being trauma-informed, or using the tactics of trauma-informed care, means teachers shift the way they react to children who were exposed to a traumatic event outside of school, taking into account their whole experience and not just what occurs in the classroom. When a teacher understands this method, Ryan says, their first response will not be to call the office or an administrator when a child is struggling, but rather pull him or her aside to talk, helping them feel safer in the school environment. 

In the medical community, these traumatic events are considered adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. The Centers for Disease Control and Preventiondefines ACEs as instances of abuse or neglect, or other experiences, like growing up in poverty, that can cause chronic stress and can actually impact the way a child’s brain develops. Long-term, children who experience one or more ACEs before the age of 18 can develop chronic health conditions, low life potential and even early death. 

The Rutgers National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarceratedrecognizes parental incarceration as an ACE, but differentiates it from others because of the unique combination of trauma, shame and stigma associated. Nationally, the Prison Policy Initiativereports the population of women’s prisons has increased at more than double the rate of men’s.

This population includes mothers of young children. In West Virginia specifically, The Sentencing Projectfound more than 60 percent of women in state prisons have children under the age of 18, and the Annie E. Casey Foundationreports 34,000 children in the state have a parent who is either currently or formerly incarcerated. 

To better serve the growing number of children impacted by this kind of trauma, Handle with Care has expanded to all 55 county school systems in West Virginia and is now shifting its focus beyond its current network to community organizations. 

Christine Wallace has attended informational sessions hosted by Handle with Care promoting their trauma-informed model. Wallace is the program manager and outreach coordinator for the Monongalia County Starting Points Family Resource Center, where their Adventurous Girls program works specifically with elementary-aged girls, a number of whom have parents that are incarcerated.

“Adventurous Girls is a program that includes youth that need a little bit of extra encouragement. I like to say it’s an enrichment program,” she said. 

By adopting the Handle with Care model on a larger scale, Wallace believes communities can create positive experiences that make children more resilient and help them cope with the trauma they’ve experienced.

“Trauma-informed care doesn’t just have to be at the school level,” Ryan said. “As a society, it’s important to know these things.”

That’s why he’s extremely open to the idea of expanding the program and encouraging people who work with children in any capacity to become trauma-informed.

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