Handle with Care has three components, Lewis said. A law enforcement agency will send a notification via text message to a point person at the school when they encounter a child at a traumatic scene. Police don’t send details to schools, just three words: “Handle With Care” plus the child’s first and last name.
The school then distributes the notification to the appropriate teacher and school counselor so they can monitor the student’s behavior and determine what trauma-sensitive support the child may need at school, such as reteaching lessons, giving more time on tests, sending the student to the nurse’s office to sleep or to the counselor.
If needed, the counselor will make a referral to Greene County Juvenile Court, which will coordinate with parents or caretakers and the school to provide therapy on site. The juvenile court assessment team and mental health counselor will provide a plan for services.
“The sooner we can wrap services around these children and their families, the more likely the root issue of the traumatic event can be discovered and the right services can be put in place,” Lewis said.
Greene County has joined 65 other U.S. communities that have Handle with Care programs. In Ohio, Butler, Brown Scioto, Gallia and Meigs counties have a Handle with Care program.
Montgomery County is also working to roll out the program. Sarah Music, who is the Handle with Care Montgomery County coordinator, said the county is working on training school employees and law enforcement. Eight of the county’s 16 school districts have expressed interest.
Jodi Kulka, with Montgomery County ESC, said they believe in educating the whole child. The Handle with Care program helps children have healthy goals and lifestyles, helping them be healthier.
“Handle with Care is beautiful and necessary,” Kulka said.
The Ohio counties that have successful programs are smaller, so Kulka and Music said that rolling the program out in Montgomery County will be more of a challenge because it is has more agencies and school districts to connect.
Anya Senetra, a school-based mental health program supervisor at the Greene County Educational Service Center, is responsible for tracking the notices forwarded by law enforcement to schools to assist in creating trauma-informed approaches when reviewing data.
“When kids come into school and they have experienced trauma or some type of adverse experience, some of those kids are invisible, you know we have no idea who those children are. They don’t walk into the building with Post-It notes on them. There’s nothing that says ‘This happened’ or ‘I didn’t have enough to eat.’” Senetra said.
When educators don’t know the “backstory,” those behaviors can be interpreted differently. A child sleeping in class, for example, may seem willful or to be behaving badly. But when there is a Handle With Care notice, the educator can address the behavior in a more gentle way.
Nationally about 80% of kids who end up involved in the juvenile justice system have histories of trauma, Senetra said.
Robyn Venoy, the Ohio Handle with Care lead, said the Handle with Care program seeks to help children who experience adverse childhood events, push on and become more resilient people. Those events can include violence, abuse or neglect, having a family member attempt or die by suicide, parental separation or household members in jail or prison, according to the CDC. Venoy works as a trauma informed care consultant with Hopewell Health, which supports the Handle with Care program.
“We know that early adverse events lead to a variety of outcomes that are less than ideal,” Venoy said. “So you have behavioral issues, physical health issues, or personal issues that are just not ideal. (Handle with Care) is about building healthy connections and building resilience through those relationships.”
Venoy said the program helps children build better relationships with their teachers and law enforcement. In Ohio counties where the program has been around for some time, law enforcement agencies report positive feedback for the way officers handle children immediately after an adverse event occurs, Venoy said. The program promotes resilience through these positive relationships with schools and first responders, she said.
Senetra said the next first responders in Greene County slated for training are emergency room workers. Lewis, with the juvenile court, said they also hope to train firefighters. The program is completely voluntary, so all schools and law enforcement agencies participating have volunteered their time.
“There’s a community benefit to that,” Senetra said. “I think to have those systems connected will keep us from having kids who faced adversity from falling through the cracks.”
The hope is fewer kids end up in juvenile court and fewer families coming to the attention of Children Services, Senetra said.
Venoy said she would love for Handle with Care to get into every Ohio county.
More information about the Handle with Care program can be found at handlewithcareoh.org.