Handle with Care Maryland
Changing Marylandand for the Better

Handle with Care

In February 2018, Governor Hogan announced that Maryland will implement the Handle with Care program statewide. At his direction, the Governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention is implementing the Handle with Care model across the state to increase trauma-informed approaches and to address Adverse Childhood Experiences to prevent future victimization or criminality.


A recent 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. Forty percent 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 in school. It often leads to school failure, truancy, suspension or expulsion, dropping out, or involvement in the juvenile justice system.

The West Virginia Defending Childhood Initiative, commonly referred to as Handle with Care (HWC), is tailored to reflect the needs and issues affecting children in West Virginia. The Initiative, a 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 effects experienced by children’s exposure to trauma, and to increase knowledge and awareness of this issue.

When Maryland first heard about Handle with Care it seemed the perfect fit with what we were doing in so many of our collaborative areas to address childhood traumas and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). The goals and the work of the program allow for children and youth to remain in school and in their classrooms for better learning, allow for all members of our community to understand and respond to trauma in a positive manner, and provide for the possibility of on-site mental health services at the schools.

The HWC program promotes 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. 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 and mental health providers, and connects families, schools and communities to mental health services.

Handle with Care was initially piloted at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School in Charleston, WV in 2013. The school, located in an urban area of the city plagued by drug and violent crime, housed approximately 500 students. Ninety-Three percent of the students came from low-income families. The school ranked 398 out of 404 elementary schools in West Virginia for poor performance. In Maryland, Handle with Care was piloted in Washington County Public Schools in the 2017-2018 school year. Evaluation efforts of both pilot programs are currently underway.

Handle with Care provides the school with a “heads up” when a child has been identified at the scene of a traumatic event. It could be a meth lab explosion, 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 and send the school a confidential email 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, many of whom 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 nurse to rest (when a HWC notification 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. As we move forward, the schools may also implement school or district-wide interventions to help create a trauma sensitive school (i.e. pairing students with an adult mentor in the school; utilization of therapy dogs; and “chill” passes).

When identified students exhibit continued behavioral or emotional problems in the classroom, the counselor or principal refers the parent or guardian to a counseling agency which provides treatment and potentially trauma-focused therapy. The counseling is provided to children and families at times which are least disruptive for the student. The mental health therapists may also participate in meetings deemed necessary by school personnel, and as authorized by the child’s parent or guardian. Counselors and mental health therapists may provide assessments of the child’s need, psychological testing, treatment recommendations, accommodation recommendations, and status updates to key school personnel as authorized by the child’s parent or guardian.

This program was developed with guidance and technical assistance from the West Virginia Defending Childhood Initiative who also worked with 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 Andrea Darr.

Handle with Care: Roll Call Video


The “Handle with Care” Model:

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/child care 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". If a child needs more intervention, on-site trauma-focused mental healthcare is available at the school.