Caring for vulnerable children with school buildings closed

Published: Jul. 22, 2020 at 7:59 PM EDT
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KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - The West Virginia State Police had to work with community partners across the state to ensure children are still cared for following traumatic events with school buildings closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Handle With Care program notifies school staff within 24 hours after a child comes into contact with a first responder. A note is sent to leaders on a need to know basis simply telling them to beware of any behavioral or emotional problems and help them through the difficult situation.

“If you’re at school and you’re not sure where you are going to sleep tonight, that could be a real issue,” West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice director Andrea Darr said. “It is going to undermine everything you do all day long.”

With schools closing in early March, that contact and daily interaction with a trusted adult was eliminated, forcing school leaders to make calls and visits home to ensure children are properly taken care of.

“The school counselor makes a list of kids they are most concerned with and the P.R.O officer goes and does porch visits,” Darr said. “Maybe the social worker goes and does porch visits. But there are people able to check on those kids year-round and so that notice just alerts everybody to go make sure that kid is okay.”

Darr said some children weren’t checking in with their school during the shutdown, so they started providing Handle With Care information at food distributions to make sure the most vulnerable students are not hurt even more by the closure.

“They need safety, they need love, they need belonging, they need cared for,” Darr said. “We really, really need those notices to come in. The identified children need resources, need help. It lets us get to them.”

One in four West Virginia children are below the poverty line, Darr said. Add that to the statistic that West Virginia is second in the nation for grandparents raising children and first for the number of children not living with a biological parent, and she said the program is able to find children that are at most risk of having problems.

“(Handle With Care gives us) a heads up and we are a little more able to provide that child what they need to make it through the day,” Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School nurse Janet Allio said. The school was host to the program’s original trial and it has helped provide resources to children after traumatic events.

To make sure all children who might need those resources can access them without being in school, leaders partnered with the United Way of West Virginia to make and distribute yard signs with information on how to call 2-1-1. Allio said the hotline has received 75 to 80 calls per week for help with children.

“It could be the safety of that child that is at stake,” Allio said. “It could even be that child’s life that’s at stake. Because many of the children who are traumatized, once a person is traumatized and it is repeated over and over, that actually does start to affect the way our brain processes and the way that child can learn.”

Allio said children have already been stressed due to the constantly changing circumstances of the pandemic and will take time and education about how to manage their feelings and emotions to successfully learn when school resumes this fall.

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