“Handle With Care” Program to Protect Children Who Experience Traumatic Events

October 6, 2020

TRENTON, NJ (MERCER)–Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer today announced a new Statewide “Handle With Care” Program to support schoolchildren throughout New Jersey who have experienced traumatic events in their lives. “Handle With Care” (HWC) is designed to promote partnerships between law enforcement and schools to help provide a safe and supportive academic environment for children exposed to traumatic events known as “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs.  ACEs, if unaddressed, can lead to problems such as drug use and depression, and they can have a lasting impact on a child’s health, well-being, and academic success. Under the program, law enforcement officers notify a child’s school promptly if the child is involved in a traumatic event, so that teachers can mitigate the negative impact, rather than unwittingly compounding it by disciplining the child for behavioral or performance issues that may be linked to the trauma.  The teacher may offer support by, for example, providing extra help with lessons, postponing a test, or referring the child to a school nurse or counselor. The program ensures that the child’s privacy is strictly protected.  Details of the traumatic event are not shared with the school, and teachers are directed not to discuss the event with the child.  A “traumatic event” for a child is defined broadly to include, among other things:

  • a child being a victim of violence, abuse, or neglect;
  • witnessing violence in the home or community;
  • the death of an immediate family member or guardian;
  • the arrest of a household member or execution of a search warrant in the home;
  • being forcibly displaced from a home by a fire, eviction, or other event; or
  • having a family member overdose or attempt or die by suicide.

Each school will be asked to designate a point of contact to receive HWC notices and alert a child’s teacher or teachers. “Handle With Care is a program that can alter the course of a young life by giving a child the critical support he or she needs to recover from a traumatic event,” said Attorney General Grewal.  “By completing a simple form, an officer sets in motion a compassionate response that may save that child from the harmful, potentially lifelong effects of an adverse childhood experience.  Through these partnerships between law enforcement and our schools, we not only will assist our most vulnerable population— our children— we will build stronger communities.” Attorney General Grewal today issued AG Directive 2020-9, the “Statewide Handle With Care Directive,” setting guidelines for all police departments and requiring officers to promptly complete and deliver an HWC notice form to a child’s school after responding to an incident where the child witnesses or is the victim of a traumatic event.  Handle With Care programs have been implemented in areas of the state, but Attorney General Grewal and Interim Education Commissioner Dehmer are bringing Handle With Care to all police departments and school districts in New Jersey. AG Directive 2020-9, the Statewide Handle With Care Directive, is posted at this link:

https://www.nj.gov/oag/dcj/agguide/directives/ag-Directive-2020-9_Handle-With-Care.pdf 

“We applaud initiatives that promote partnerships between law enforcement and schools, especially when those efforts help protect students from the effects of adverse childhood experiences,” said Interim Commissioner Kevin Dehmer. “Handle With Care was designed to do just that. With the expansion of this program, schools throughout the state will be able to better support young people experiencing traumatic events in their lives.” 

Attorney General Grewal will host a virtual symposium on Nov. 17, 2020, on Handle With Care for officers and educators that will include presentations and panel discussions about the program and related topics, including the impact of ACEs on children, promoting resiliency in children and officers, and how Handle With Care complements other community policing initiatives and school programs that address childhood trauma.  All law enforcement officers in New Jersey will view the symposium online on that date or by Dec. 31, 2020, the effective date of the Statewide Handle With Care Directive. The symposium will emphasize how Handle With Care fits in the larger context of “trauma-informed policing.”  Trauma-informed policing helps officers understand the lasting impacts of trauma, creating better awareness of the needs of victims as well as their own needs.  Last year, Attorney General Grewal created a first-in-the-nation statewide Resiliency Program for Law Enforcement to assist officers in coping with the emotional, mental and physical stress of their jobs. “By raising awareness among police officers and educators about trauma and offering them ideas and practices to promote resiliency, we empower them to help children— and we also empower them to help themselves,”  said Attorney General Grewal. “This is an important program for officers and teachers as well as children.” 

Middle Township Police Chief Christopher Leusner’s Handle With Care program led to the first countywide program in Cape May County, in partnership with the Cape May County Chiefs of Police Association.  Chief Leusner also supported and fostered development of Handle With Care programs in other parts of the state. The DEA’s New Jersey Division has implemented Handle With Care programs in Ocean County, in partnership with Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer and the Ocean County School Superintendents; in Monmouth County, in partnership with Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni and the Monmouth County School Superintendents; in Hunterdon County, in partnership with Acting Prosecutor Michael Williams and the Hunterdon County School Superintendents; and in Newark, in partnership with the Newark Police Department, Newark Board of Education, and the New York/New Jersey HIDTA Task Force.  The program originated in Charleston, West Virginia. “The Handle with Care Directive will make a difference in the lives of young people in this state,” said Middle Township Police Chief Christopher Leusner.  “We know from the science and research around Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that toxic stress puts a child at risk for poor health and social outcomes.  This program will improve communication between law enforcement and education to help support our youth and contribute to building resiliency.”   “I am very proud that DEA was able to play a role in the implementation of this very important program,” said Special Agent in Charge of DEA’s New Jersey Division, Susan A. Gibson. “This is a program that can have long lasting, positive results for children who may have experienced some type of trauma. This will allow a school to set in motion the necessary actions to assist a child in need.” Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) leads the NJ ACEs Collaborative, a partnership among DCF, the Center for Health Care Strategies, and three private foundations— The Nicholson Foundation, The Burke Foundation, and The Turrell Fund.  Their mission is to reduce the incidence and impact of ACEs in New Jersey.  Commissioner Beyer also leads the NJ ACEs Interagency Team, which advises the Collaborative and includes representatives of the Governor’s Office, Office of the First Lady, Attorney General’s Office, Department of Education, and other state agencies. “Through this partnership and the work around ACEs happening throughout State government, we’re taking important steps to keep children’s well-being in mind, and to better identify, understand, manage and mitigate the stressors that children face when dealing with trauma and adversity,” said Commissioner Beyer.  “By advancing our Statewide collaboration around ACEs, New Jersey is sending the message that the work of mitigating the effects of toxic stress, adversity and trauma is a collaborative effort that requires all departments and agencies to focus on the well-being of the child at the center of an adverse event.  It puts the needs of children above all else, and promotes a community of care around children experiencing adversity to help them become and remain safe, healthy and connected.”  The DEA has created a video, with an introduction by Attorney General Grewal and SAC Gibson, that presents the Handle With Care Program to viewers and highlights how it supports and builds resiliency in children who have experienced ACEs.  Click here to view video