Handle With Care Massachusetts

Program Overview

If a law enforcement officer encounters a child during a call, that child’s name and three words, HANDLE WITH CARE, are forwarded to the school/childcare agency 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”.

A 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 and 40% 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. It often leads to school failure, truancy, suspension or expulsion, dropping out, or involvement in the juvenile justice system.

The “Helping Traumatized Children Learn” model, is now referred to as “Handle With Care”.  Our model is tailored to reflect the needs and issues affecting children in Massachusetts. The Initiative, which is the 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 affects experienced by children’s exposure to trauma, and to increase knowledge and awareness of this issue.

Handle With Care (“HWC”) programs promote safe and supportive homes, schools and communities that protect children, and help traumatized children heal and thrive. HWC promotes school-community partnerships aimed at ensuring that children who are exposed to trauma in their home, school or community receive appropriate interventions to help them achieve academically at their highest levels, despite whatever traumatic circumstances they may have endured. The ultimate goal of HWC is to help students to succeed in school. Regardless of the source of trauma, the common thread for effective intervention is the school or childcare agency. Research now shows that trauma can undermine children’s ability to learn, form relationships, and function appropriately in the classroom. HWC programs support children exposed to trauma and violence through improved communication and collaboration between law enforcement, schools/childcare agencies and mental health providers, and connects families, schools and communities to mental health services.

Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz and the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) first implemented the “Helping Traumatized Children Learn” model as a pilot program in the  Brockton Public Schools in 2008.

The goal was two-fold:

  1. To treat the child victims and witnesses of violence by treating their exposure to adverse childhood experiences.
  2. To prevent the next generation of abusers.

Data from 2011-2014 showed an 80% decrease in suspendable issues and a 43% decrease in office referrals at the city’s three pilot schools.

TLPI, a collaboration of Harvard Law School and the Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC), aims to ensure that children traumatized by adverse childhood experiences succeed in school. To accomplish this mission, TLPI engages in a host of advocacy strategies including: providing support to schools to become trauma sensitive environments; research and report writing; legislative and administrative advocacy for laws, regulations and policies that support schools to develop trauma-sensitive environments; coalition building; outreach and education; and limited individual case representation in special education where a child’s traumatic experiences are interfacing with his or her disabilities.

TLPI’s work has its roots in the school exclusion crisis that arose in Massachusetts in the mid-1990’s. During this time, MAC successfully advocated at the Massachusetts legislature for the creation of the Safe and Supportive Learning Environments grant program (MGL c. 69, sec. 1N (b)) which continues to fund schools to experiment with trauma-sensitive approaches. Eventually, MAC joined in partnership with Lesley University’s Center for Special Education to hold the first ever conference on the impact of trauma on learning. From that point on the work on trauma’s impact on learning at school gained momentum as MAC worked with an interdisciplinary group of psychologists, educators, and attorneys to draft what would later be published as Helping Traumatized Children Learn (HTCL) manual. This publication introduced the Flexible Framework—an organizational tool for creating trauma-sensitive schools—developed by MAC in collaboration with those schools that had received funding from the legislature.

In 2004, MAC entered into a formal partnership with Harvard Law School called the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI). Since the publication of HTCL in 2005, schools in Massachusetts and across the country have used the Flexible Framework to create trauma-sensitive environments structured to help all children learn. The success of the initiative led to a second volume, Creating and Advocating for Trauma-Sensitive Schools in 2013, which included the District Attorney’s and TLPI’s partnership with the City of Brockton as a case study. Robert Anda, MD, MS, the Co-Founder of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study called TLPI’s new publication, “an exciting next step in the evolution of the cultural movement to transform our school systems into safe, supportive learning environments for all children, including those who have experienced overwhelming adversity.”

During this time, District Attorney Cruz and members of his staff trained the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice on the “Helping Traumatized Children Learn” model. In turn, the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice used the training to develop the “Handle with Care” communication protocol to help schools better identify students with ACEs. West Virginia first implemented “Handle with Care” at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School in Charleston, WV in 2013.

“Handle with Care” provides the school or childcare agency with a “heads up” when a child has been identified at the scene of a traumatic event. It could be an overdose, a domestic violence situation, a shooting in the neighborhood, witnessing a malicious wounding, a drug raid at the home, etc. Police are trained to identify children at the scene, find out where they go to school or daycare and send the school/agency a confidential email or fax that simply says . . . “Handle Johnny with care”. That’s it. No other details.

In addition to providing notice, officers also build positive relationships with students by interacting on a regular basis. They visit classrooms, stop by for lunch, and simply chat with students to help promote positive relationships and perceptions of officers.

Teachers have been trained on the impact of trauma on learning, and are incorporating many interventions to mitigate the negative impact of trauma for identified students, including: sending students to the clinic to rest (when a HWC has been received and the child is having trouble staying awake or focusing); re-teaching lessons; postponing testing; small group counseling by school counselors; and referrals to counseling, social service or advocacy programs. The school has also implemented many school-wide interventions to help create a “trauma sensitive” school (Greeters; pairing students with an adult mentor in the school; utilization of a therapy dog; and “thumbs up/thumbs down” to indicate if a student is having a good day or a bad day).

Components of this program were developed with guidance and technical assistance from the Massachusetts Advocates for Children: Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, in collaboration with Harvard Law School and the Task Force on Children Affected by Domestic Violence. Special thanks to Joe Ristuccia, Ed.M., co-author of Helping Traumatized Children Learn; Andrea Darr, Director of the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice; and Huntington, WV community activist and volunteer Leon White.