168 – Drug Endangered Children: Handle with Care

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Dr. Sandra Morgan and Dave Stachowiak talk to Andrea Darr from Handle with Care West Virginia about her state’s drug crisis and the effect it is having on its children. She also shares the ways the Handle with CARE program helps these children.

Key Points

  • West Virginia is ground zero for the opioid crisis.
  • People are more likely to die from a drug overdose in West Virginia than in any other state in the county.
  • The origin of the opioid crisis was when physicians would give physical laborers (loggers, coal miners, etc) pain killers instead of surgery or physical therapy just so they would get right back to work.
  • Sometimes helpers unwittingly traumatize children.
  • For many misbehaving children, they would be better served by being sent to a school therapist than the school principal
  • The 3 parts of a Handle with Care program: Get Law Enforcement on board, make schools trauma-informed, have therapists on site at the schools.


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Dave: [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 168, Drug Endangered Children: Handle with Care.

Production Credits: [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

[00:00:29] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie: [00:00:34] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave: [00:00:36] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. And today’s guest, Sandie, is going to be such an important addition to our ongoing conversation on ending human trafficking. And also, very much connected to the theme upcoming for the Ensure Justice conference.

Sandie: [00:00:57] That’s right. And by the time you’re listening to this podcast, Andrea and her colleague, Chad Napier, will have been presenters here at Ensure Justice. And you’ll have to go back and review that, and make sure you sign up for 2019.

Dave: [00:01:13] Well we are really pleased to welcome Andrea Darr to the show today. She is the director of the West Virginia’s Center for Children’s Justice, which promotes and supports a statewide trauma informed response to child maltreatment and children’s exposure to violence. Before devoting her work full time on children’s initiatives, Andrea served as the coordinator of Victim Witness services for the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Institute from 2005 to 2015. Andrea’s also worked in direct services with victims of crime violence and abuse, while serving as the victim liaison in the Konneh County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Andrea we’re so glad to welcome you to Ending Human Trafficking.

Andrea: [00:01:56] Well, thank you so much for having me today.

Sandie: [00:01:59] So we’re going to dig right into this podcast content because there’s so much information that we’d love for you to explain for us. My first question is, can you explain what a drug endangered child is?

Andrea: [00:02:17] Sure. Drug endangered children are children whose lives have been adversely affected by their parents or caregivers, youth manufacturing, trafficking illegal substances. So, their children that experience a wide range of abuse and neglect because of the substances. For the most part, a neglect really stands out in this because a lot of times when people are addicted to drugs, you know that’s their focus, that’s their primary focus. It’s the first thing they think about in the morning. What does my stash look like? How am I going to use today? How am I going to get some more? Where am I going to get the money to cover it? So, they’re not thinking about packing the child’s lunch, getting the child to school, making sure they have clean clothes. And when you get into cocaine and methamphetamine and things like that, the physical violence really escalates with that. And the sexual violence escalates. So, it’s just children who didn’t choose this, but they live in homes where there’s substance abuse. And it really negatively affects them.

Sandie: [00:03:18] We’ve known that this is an issue that we need to engage for a long time. But the media attention we have now to the opioid crisis, brings this to the top of the charts. And you live at ground zero. Can you explain why that’s so significant?

Andrea: [00:03:39] It’s so significant for these kids. You know you’re more likely in West Virginia to die from a drug overdose than any other state in the country. We are ground zero for the opioid epidemic. We’re a very rural state, rural as in non-farming. So, two thirds of the total population live sort of a rural, non-farming area. In West Virginia for years and years coal was king here. Lots of the jobs here were coal, and timbering, and lots of physically manual jobs. And a lot of these people when they got hurt, often doctors would give them a pill instead of doing the physical therapy and the surgery and everything needed just to get them back to work. So, in West Virginia we have lost 40 percent of our coal jobs in the last five years. And when you lose your job it’s not just a paycheck- it’s who you are, your purposes, your connection to the community, your connection with your family, it’s so many things about yourself. So, for our population to lose these jobs have been devastating. And along with that, one in four of our kids live below the federal poverty line. We are ground zero for the opioid epidemic. We had a terrible pill problem, which obviously turned into a terrible heroin problem because it is cheaper and it’s more accessible. We have one of the highest rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome, you know babies born with drugs in their system. And all these things are creating a really high rate of transient kids, couch surfing kids, kids who you know they’re just transients, they’re just staying wherever they can, however they can survive. And of course, that’s how I got to you all today, and coming to the conference because oftentimes they get picked up in trafficking situations just to survive. And in West Virginia we lead the nation in removal of kids from homes because of all these problems. And I think we’re right now second in the country in grandparents raising their grandkids.

Sandie: [00:05:41] Oh my goodness.

Andrea: [00:05:43] You put all that together and you’ve got so many transient and displaced children who aren’t on anybody’s radar really.

Sandie: [00:05:52] And when do you historically feel like this started to really come to the attention in West Virginia, of child welfare of government? How long have you been tracking this?

Andrea: [00:06:05] Now this has been slowly working for years and years in the system. You know when the methamphetamine hit, I think that’s when drug endangered children were coined. That’s when that terminology came along because for the first time, these children were not just innocent bystanders. You know, in the past they were just there. If they rose to the level of victimization by Child Protective Services, the first responder would make a mandated report to CPS. But for the most part, these kids were just there and never got services, they never got identified, and it just got worse and worse until people figured out you know what they’re not innocent bystanders here, they’re victims, they did not choose to live in this. And of course, when meth hit, that’s when people learned how to make drugs from the Internet. They could make their meth at home, and it created all these layers of problems for the kids, especially the little ones who were exposed to all the chemicals. So, the drug endangered children hit hard in West Virginia, I’d say in 2003 and 2004. And in 2005 we put pseudoephedrine behind the counter, you had to sign for it, so that really helped deter a lot of people making so many drugs. But while that was going on, the pills were coming in to West Virginia, just tons of prescription pills. They just dumped it on West Virginia and so many people got addicted to these drugs. And that of course just turned into the heroin epidemic that we have today.

Sandie: [00:07:34] So a drug endangered child can be living in a home where drugs are actually produced?

Andrea: [00:07:42] Sure. You know and that’s when we had a lot of the meth labs, you know they were making it. Or even if children live in environments where they’re growing marijuana, if you’re growing inside you’ve got lots of electrical problems because of all the lighting, you have a lot of mold problems because of all the moisture involved in watering those plants. If parents are selling drugs you’ve got people going in and out of the house, day and night all the time. And you know there are those kids assessable to whatever’s going on with those trafficking.

Sandie: [00:08:15] Wow. So, when I think about drug endangered children, I’m thinking about children whose family members that are responsible for being their caretakers are sort of absent because they can’t get the kids to school on time because they’re not awake or they can’t purchase the things the kids need for school, for their extracurricular activities because that money is already spent on drugs. But now you’ve upped this risk of danger, to being exposed to chemicals, to hazards of production. And then you bring in the people that are buying and selling them, we know that’s not a great people group to have around children who are growing up and are impressionable and so vulnerable to being abused. So, tell us how you have developed a program to intervene on their behalf?

Andrea: [00:09:16] Well let me back up just a little bit, and let you know that I am a Children’s Justice at Grant recipient for the state of West Virginia it’s a very small grant. Every state gets one of these grants, and it’s charged with the investigation prosecution and resolution of child maltreatment cases. We want to figure out what are the barriers that are preventing us from having better outcome for kids. We want to be able to respond better and have quicker, more safe outcomes for kids. And we want to do it in a way that doesn’t cause further trauma to the kids. So many of us try to help them, we don’t even realize that we as helpers are sometimes traumatizing these children in the process. So, what we came up with is a program called, Handle with Care, which is a program aimed at children who are exposed to crime violence and abuse. Our program is threefold. And it starts with law enforcement. I work for the West Virginia State Police. It’s a fabulous organization, I love it here, the troopers are helping us get Handle with Care in every county in West Virginia. But it’s all law enforcement. When you do Handle with Care, you need state police, sheriff’s department, and all your law enforcement municipalities. Basically, when you do any sort of trauma informed care everybody needs to be on board with what you’re doing. Everybody needs to understand the concept of what you’re doing. You’re going to stop saying “what’s wrong with this kid” and start saying “what’s happened to this kid, and how can I help this kid. How can I meet this kid where he or she is right now and help them.”? So obviously law enforcement are the first people that meet the kids who are at risk. You know, if law enforcement is there and children are present, those are the kids that are most at risk. If there’s a victim and they need to make that mandated report, they’re going to make it. Our program really focuses on all those kids that are left behind, that are just there, that saw their parents arguing at 2:00 in the morning and one of them was high, and one of them got arrested, one went to the hospital, whatever. The very next day, where are these kids? Odds are, they’re at school. They don’t have their homework, their bombing tests, they’re falling asleep, they’re hungry, they’re acting out, they’re scared. They’re just terrified and scared.

Sandie: [00:11:26] So let me ask you then that this whole thing where kids who are acting out and they get sent to the principal’s office or they aren’t getting their homework done. And so, then they’re being assessed for a learning disability. They’re being sent to the counselor, to the school psychologist. So, the child is in effect being almost punished for something they have no control over.

Andrea: [00:11:52] Absolutely. And Handle with Care wants to completely change that. Our program is aimed at ensuring that children who are exposed to any crime or abuse receive appropriate intervention so they can succeed at school to the best of their ability. That’s our whole focus. We want to address and mitigate the negative effects of that trauma, so that child can learn. So, when law enforcement interacts with a child on a scene, all they’re going to do is get that child’s name, age, and the school they go to. And before that child hits school the very next day, the principal will have a confidential text, fax, or e-mail that says “if you’re getting this little Johnny’s been on the scene of a police incident in the last 24 hours, might exhibit academic, emotional, or behavioral problems. Please handle this child with care.”.

Sandie: [00:12:38] Say that one more time a little slower, what does the text say?

[00:12:43] The text can say a lot of things. But the gist of it is, “if you’re receiving this notice on little Johnny or little Susie, that means they have been on the scene of a police incident in the last 24 hours. They might exhibit academic, emotional, or behavioral problems. Please handle this child with care. For more information go to handlewithcarewv.org.

Sandie: [00:13:07] Wow. Stunning.

Andrea: [00:13:09] If you knew nothing about our program, you would know exactly what to do. Wouldn’t you, if you get that notice?

Sandie: [00:13:15] Yeah, I sure wouldn’t ask Johnny or Susie, “where’s your homework. I’m going to call your mother.” Because Johnny or Susie doesn’t even want to tell me where their mother is.

Andrea: [00:13:25] You know, children like this they need connection and they need to feel safe. They need safety first, they need to feel safe where they are, safe in their own skin, and safe in their environment. And then they need a connection, someone who cares about them, someone that can reach them in some way. Every kid is good at something, everybody is good at something. Figure that out, and make that connection with that child. Make that child feel safe, so that they can learn.

Sandie: [00:13:49] So what are the three pieces of a Handle with Care program if somebody wanted to try and replicate that in their city?

Andrea: [00:13:58] So the first piece, is getting law enforcement onboard to send that notice to the school. The second piece, is for the school to become trauma informed and create trauma sensitive environments for these children to learn. The third piece is having therapists onsite at the school, some of these kids really need to talk to a therapist to process what’s going on with them. And our program, as trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapist, a therapist trained in that modality located at the school so the children can have access to those services.

Sandie: [00:14:34] And we’ve done some podcasts on trauma informed and about CBT so we’ll put those podcasts numbers in our show notes for listeners who want to take a deeper dive on that. So, in your Handle with Care identification of kids at risk, you talk about how they may act out. And if I’m a teacher and I have a kid who’s skipping school, or they actually start using drugs, or end up doing shoplifting or something else then you want me not to send them to the principal’s office? You want me to send them for counseling?

Andrea: [00:15:12] I do. We do. When children are acting out, when children are having problems, a lot of times their behavior makes you think of this punishment. You know this is a child behaving badly and we need punishment. When in fact if you knew a little bit about this child, you might figure out this child is struggling. You know that ACE study is a wonderful tool for all of us to use to help understand these children. The ACE study, and I’m sure you’re aware of it if you’ve done that podcast.

Sandie: [00:15:41] We’ll put a podcast up on that too.

Andrea: [00:15:43] But simply understanding that this child, before they were 18, have they been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused? Have they been physically or emotionally neglected? Are they living in a home with substance abuse? Are they living in a home with mental illness? Or are they living in a home with domestic violence? Are they living in a home where parents are incarcerated? Or are parents are divorced, they’ve lost a parent in some way? All those things create such trauma in children.

Sandie: [00:16:11] So ACE is adverse childhood experiences. And I noticed in some of your literature, that a newborn at ground zero, right there in West Virginia, already has a score of four.

Andrea: [00:16:28] It is not uncommon for a newborn in West Virginia to have a score of four right when they get home from the hospital or wherever they were born. They live in a home, where there’s substance use, and substance use and abuse goes hand in hand with the risk of child maltreatment. And all that goes hand in hand with domestic violence. And if you got those three already there, often a parent is incarcerated. So right off the bat, it is not uncommon for children in West Virginia to have four ACEs their first year of life.

Sandie: [00:17:00] So I teach family violence and I do the ACEs quiz with my students every year when we begin that class. And the average student probably has a 1 or a 2, and then there’s a few, a handful with a 4, and then there’s one or two that end up making it to university with an eight or a nine. Which is unfathomable because I think there’s ten questions. And when you think about how a child makes it through and gets an education, which an education is going to build prevention into their lives, build success into their lives. But if a child starts out as a newborn with a score of four, then we’re looking at cycles that begin to repeat themselves.

Andrea: [00:17:58] Exactly. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this for the last year. I mean people say, “is it that bad in West Virginia? How did we get here?” And my simple answer is that our drug endangered children are having drug endangered children. You know we’ve had three cycles now of kids who never felt safe in their own skin and their environment, they never learned any healthy attachment, they don’t know how to behave properly. Because they have never seen it in their parents or their grandparents. So, our drug endangered children are having drug endangered children, and that’s sort of where we are today. You asked me earlier about the ground zero here in West Virginia. When I say ground zero, if I say it to law enforcement, they’re going to think of drugs and crime. If I say we’re ground zero to EMS, they’re going to think of overdoses. If I say this to public health, they’re going to think of HIV increases, hepatitis increases, talk of harm reduction. If you say that to CPS. They’re going to think about removal of kids and the fact that we don’t have any more homes to put these kids in. But nobody is making the connection that ground zero for the opioid crisis is blowing up the school. The children are not learning and they’re so disruptive sometimes, they’re disrupting the whole class that the rest of the kids aren’t learning. The teacher’s spending their time trying to redirect and redirect. But really you know it’s about the kids that’s the next generation. We have got to focus on those drug endangered children in the classroom, and doing everything we can to help them learn and help them learn how to self-regulate. Well.

Sandie: [00:19:44] And you mentioned earlier that as a result of this crisis many times grandparents are raising this generation. So how does that work into your understanding?

Andrea: [00:20:00] Well grandparents raising grandchildren, it’s almost becoming the norm here. And a lot of these grandparents, they’re older, they’re retired, they didn’t plan on raising their children in retirement. But they will and they do. But they do it often on a fixed income. They do it often with at least one chronic health issue. They do it when they don’t understand parenting in the 21st century, they don’t understand social media, they don’t understand how to work the iPad to help the child do the homework. They’re often feeling guilty about what happened with their own children and fearful it might happen again. So, they have all kinds of issues that they need support for. That’s going to be one of my goals in the coming years, is to figure out how we can support these grandparents with these grandchildren.

Sandie: [00:20:51] Well and if your statement about drug endangered children create a cycle of drug endangered children, then pretty soon the next generation of grandparents, there isn’t going to be a great grandparent to pick up the ball. And I love what you said about they’re already dealing with health issues. I have students who were raised by grandparents. And when a family, that grandparent goes into the hospital what happens to those kids and then they end up with a placement. And so, they’ve lost their significant caretaker a second time. So, the trauma piece of this in our schools is a huge part of helping these kids be successful.

Andrea: [00:21:37] A lot of the time schools is the only safe place in a child’s whole world. You know that’s supposed to be the safe place, it’s not supposed to be a battle zone. They’re coming in there armed for whatever is coming at them, because in their world they have no idea what to expect next. There are already hyper vigilant to all this and they come to school. That school needs to be safe. It needs to be predictable. It needs to be kind. It just needs to be kind.

Sandie: [00:22:06] I love the fact that your partner retired Lieutenant, Chad Napier, is the preventing coordinator for AHIDTA. Tell us what that acronym means?

Andrea: [00:22:20] Chad is prevention and education coordinator for Appalachian Heida and that’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. And Chad was with the Charleston Police Department for years, he’s done it all. Bureau chief of investigative services, he was on the street crimes unit. He ran the drug task force here for several years. So, he really understands what’s going on out there in the streets, what the drug problems are out there. And he also understands a lot of these people he arrests were children who were abused and neglected. You know the cycle just repeats itself. So, Chad is a great cop. He’s a great guy. He’s a great teacher and we’re very lucky to have Chad.

Sandie: [00:23:04] So how do you go from being an investigator and an enforcer, to doing prevention? Does he go out and battle the drug distributors? How does he do prevention?

Andrea: [00:23:16] Well, he spends a lot of his time in schools talking to kids. You know you need to reach these kids younger than 12 and 14, but you need to reach these kids as young as possible. So, he spends a lot of time going into schools talking to students about drugs. Chad lost two of his closest childhood friends to overdoses. He knows firsthand, from working in it from his friends passing away, how devastating this is. And so, he just says you know if I can reach one kid that’s what I need to do, so they don’t go down this road of drug addiction.

Sandie: [00:23:53] Wow. That’s amazing. There is so much we could talk about here. I want to kind of wind this up with, tell us how the Handle with Care initiative really. It’s bigger than a program. It is something everybody can do in any area. So, to tell us in a capsule what the most important pieces are, and how someone who wants to try to use this in their community can get started, or who would they contact?

Andrea: [00:24:27] First of all, the best thing we have right now is our website. It’s so easy, it has so much information, it’s straightforward. So, go to handlewithcarewv.org. Don’t forget to put the WV on the end of it. And when you go there you’ll see how to get it started in your community. The first thing you have to do. I went county by county in West Virginia. We have 55 counties and I only went when I was invited and people wanted it. And when we went we had to have all our stakeholders there. You need to have representative from all of your law enforcement, a representative from each of your schools, your mental health therapist, whatever organization serves kids there. You need to have them there at that meeting and get everybody on the same page at one time. And tell them what you want to do, and then see how you might work it in your community. What’s the best way to send that notice? What’s the best way to get these teachers trained in trauma informed care? What’s the best way to get these therapists co-located at the school? It’s really not that hard, but it doesn’t happen without law enforcement. So however, you do it, make it as easy as possible on law enforcement to get that notice over to you.

Sandie: [00:25:38] Wow, that’s terrific. And I could talk to you for another hour, but that’s not what we do here, we try to keep it in a half hour segment so somebody can listen to this on their commute to work. But we’ll put links to your website on our show notes. And you can be sure Andrea that we will call you back and do another podcast. This was so terrific. Can’t thank you enough.

Andrea: [00:26:04] Oh thank you so much, I really appreciate being able to share the message of Handle with Care. It’s catching on all over the country, I get calls three or four times a day from other states that heard about it, that’s implementing it. So, it’s not hard. It’s does so much good for kids. So, go to our website, and check it out, and call if you need help, and we’ll do what we can to help you.

Dave: [00:26:25] Sandie and Andrea, you know we hear about so many of these challenging situations out there and it’s so heartbreaking to hear about the situation in West Virginia and in so many other places. And of course, with all these challenges and huge obstacles comes the love and the care that we hear from Andrea and the folks that she’s working with, Sandie. It’s really inspiring to see what opportunities come out of such difficult situations. And I share your enthusiasm, Sandie. I’m so excited to hear about the work they’re doing there, and I’m glad you’ve tuned in so you can learn about it as well. You know a big focus of the Global Center for Women and Justice is studying the issues, so you can be a voice, and make a difference. And if you’d like to study the issues in a more substantial way, visit the Global Center for Women and Justice website at Vanguard.edu, and learn about the human trafficking certificate program. It is one of the many ways that you can really in a formal way study the issues. Sandie and her faculty team have put together a tremendous program. But if that’s not the right step for you right now, here’s something that is a great step you can take right away. Go to our website endinghumantrafficking.org. And sign up for our e-mail address so you can find out what Sandie is up to and what the center is up to. And Sandie I’ll see you again in two weeks.

Sandie: [00:27:46] Alright, thanks, Dave.

Dave: [00:27:48] Thanks, everyone. Take care.

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