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New program to focus on children exposed to traumatic events

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New program to focus on children exposed to traumatic events
By Samuel Speciale, Charleston Daily Mail

 Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced Tuesday the statewide expansion of a juvenile justice program that requires law enforcement officers to inform schools anytime a student is exposed to a traumatic event or act of violence.

In a Tuesday press conference at the State Police Professional Development Center in Dunbar, Tomblin and Goodwin unveiled plans to create the West Virginia Center for Children's Justice, which will serve as a headquarters for the program and several task forces that will handle child abuse and neglect cases.

The center is a collaborative effort between Goodwin's office, State Police and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. It will be used to disseminate information and resources on trauma intervention and will house training facilities for police officers, educators and counselors from around the state.

A national survey on children's exposure to violence found that 60 percent of students experience some kind of trauma in their homes, schools or communities and that 40 percent of those kids are direct victims of violence. Students exposed to violence are also at higher risk of engaging in criminal behavior later in life.

“If we don't get these kids early or intervene effectively, they'll end up in the correctional system by their 20s,” Goodwin said. “That's where this program and this center comes in.”

Col. Jay Smithers, State Police superintendent, said law enforcement officers encounter children at scenes of crime on a daily basis.

“Those kids are the most at risk for entering the state's care,” he said, praising the center's potential to help students who need help but have been overlooked.

The program's expansion comes nearly two months after a pilot program in two of Charleston's West Side schools was created to help trauma-exposed children cope. Goodwin said those pilots have been successful and that police departments and school systems around the state have asked for similar programs in their communities.

“This will have huge ramifications,” Goodwin said. “Because sometimes teachers don't know which students are suffering, and many do so in silence.”

Once the center is established and officers are trained, those who encounter a child exposed to crime will inform the school system so teachers and counselors can intervene immediately.

“It allows educators to get ahead and watch for warning signs,” Goodwin said. “It helps them understand and address causes of bad behavior instead of reacting to the behavior itself.”

Goodwin said Charleston police officers have been voluntarily making the reports for about a year now and that it has had a positive effect in schools.

From August 2013 to December 2014, Charleston police reported 360 separate incidents involving 673 children, Goodwin said.

Had the school system not been informed those children were exposed to violence and potentially at risk for behavioral problems, Goodwin said teachers and counselors likely wouldn't have been able to address issues before they negatively impacted the student.

“It has a remarkable impact on a child's ability to learn,” he said.

Education studies have found that stressed students do not learn at the same rate their relaxed peers do. It also is believed that students, who are exposed to violence and come from unstable homes, don't do well in school and often experience behavioral and social problems in the classroom.

Tomblin, who also spoke at the press conference, praised the program and said he believes the center will expand prevention and intervention services in schools.

Tomblin also announced he will soon sign a Senate Bill he said will “kickstart” juvenile justice reform in West Virginia.

That bill, which is a governor's bill, will carry out many of recommendations made by the state's Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice, which Tomblin commissioned last year.

The task force found that the majority of youths entering the state's juvenile justice system are being adjudicated for low-level and status offenses like truancy, consuming alcohol or running away from home — all of which are not considered a crime if done by an adult. When announcing the pilot program, Goodwin said many of those offenses can be linked to a student's exposure to trauma at home.

Upon discovery, the task force recommended that state agencies increase early intervention efforts to address truancies and other problems faced by the juvenile justice system.

Those recommendations were incorporated in the bill.

The center is a part of the West Virginia Defending Childhood Initiative, which is modeled after a federal Department of Justice program.