The past year and a half have been a time of unprecedented challenges, building resilience and adapting to seemingly constant change. Resilient Lehigh Valley understands that a child’s exposure to potentially traumatic events can impair healthy brain development, causing cognitive delays and difficulty with emotional regulation and impulse control, but we also know that healing from trauma is possible and occurs in the context of healthy, supportive relationships.
An individual can experience a traumatic event at any time which can impair one’s mental and emotional health, but trauma has the most devastating and lasting impact when it occurs during childhood when the young body and brain are still developing. The nature of childhood is that children are vulnerable and their safety and healthy development are dependent upon the adults and the world around them. Sometimes, we can protect our children from harm, but often we can’t. In many of these instances, police officers are called to the scene to aid the injured, support loved ones after a loss of life, protect the vulnerable, and ensure community safety.
That’s why Resilient Lehigh Valley jump-started Handle With Care. The program is across Northampton and Lehigh counties and enhances police-school communication following an event where a child was present during police activity. When officers arrive at a scene, and a child is present, they will submit a Handle With Care referral into the school’s Safe 2 Say system, appearing as an unspecified “event.” Schools will communicate these referrals with appropriate staff according to their Safe 2 Say protocols.
“It is a sad reality that many of the children in our communities are exposed to traumatic events on a regular, if not daily basis,” states Bethlehem City Police Department Chief Michelle Kott. “The research is clear that trauma can undermine a child’s ability to learn, form relationships, and function in the classroom. This amazing program affords our officers the opportunity to collaborate with other community stakeholders to provide better support and services to children exposed to trauma and violence. Additionally, it’s extremely gratifying for our officers to know that a simple notification can help make the difference in a child’s life.”
The program began in September 2020 during Covid-19 in partnership with United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley. The Handle With Care notice helps school officials identify if a student is demonstrating difficulty coping with a traumatic event or processing tough emotions. It also supports that child through a nurturing relationship with their teacher and connects the child with additional assistance or services as needed – from a nap or extra meal in the nurse’s office, pushing back a test or school assignment, to talking with the school counselor or therapist. Upon observing their behavior, students are connected to support resources.
“Handle With Care has afforded East Penn School district and individual schools the opportunity to be present for students when they have experienced a traumatic event,” said Dr. Thomas P. Mirabella, Director of Student Services, East Penn School District. “Often the school is unaware when a student experiences a traumatic event outside of the regular school day. By establishing and maintaining this open line of communication with law enforcement agencies we are able to better recognize, support, and serve the needs of our students during the school day.”
By the end of the 2020 -21 school year, schools across the Lehigh Valley received 225 Handle With Care referrals. In the first quarter of the 2021 -22 school year, law enforcement submitted 173 referrals. Its anticipated that the number of referrals will continue to grow as more police officers become aware of the program and engage. Referrals are expected to surge in 2022 due to increasing trauma events within the Lehigh Valley. Luckily, Handle With Care continues to expand, educating more law enforcement officers and communities.
“The success of Handle With Care’s pilot year shows the cooperation between police departments and school officials to help children with anything from an extra meal at school to pairing them with resources they need,” said Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin. “The partnership with United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, Resilient Lehigh Valley, area school officials, and local law enforcement has proven to be an invaluable aid to students dealing with trauma.”
Before the pandemic, traumatized youth were already in a state of crisis, but since 2020, mental health needs have increased across the community as a whole. 4 in 10 Lehigh Valley middle and high school students reported feeling depressed most days in the past year (2019 PAYS data), with 15-17% reporting thoughts of suicide or self-harming behaviors
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) carry the impact of trauma into adulthood and can lead to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance abuse. In fact, there was a 24% increase in emergency room visits for mental health reasons for children ages 5 through 11, and a more than a 30 percent increase in visits for those between 12 and 17 years old in 2020. Additionally, a study found that ACEs increase the likelihood of school dropout by age 18 and arrest by age 18, regardless of race.
Research shows about half of Pennsylvanians reported experiencing some form of childhood trauma, and one in five have experienced toxic levels of traumatic stress. One in three 4th graders in the Lehigh Valley were not reading at grade level, while one-third of middle and high school students reported feeling depressed in the last year.
“Children exposed to only two forms of childhood trauma are much more likely to be suspended, chronically absent, or failing a grade. However, as the brain can be hurt by trauma, it can be healed through positive, safe, and nurturing relationships with adults,” reflected Beth Tomlinson, Senior Director of Education with United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley and co-founder of Resilient Lehigh Valley. “Handle With Care has come at the right time to support children and help them heal from traumatic events through fostering nurturing relationships with educators and a trauma-informed school environment.”