How essential workers can help keep at-risk kids safe in West Virginia

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – 2020 was a tough year for many people across the globe – between COVID-19, school closures, and the increased amount of layoffs and job losses. However, officials in the child welfare system explained that COVID-19 has been particularly hard on disenfranchised youth when, even before the pandemic, one in four children lived below the poverty line.

“We’ve got a lot of substance misuse in West Virginia, and of course the pandemic is exasperating that,” explained Andrea Darr, Director at the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice, “Overdoses are up. We lead the nation in removing kids per capita, and it’s because of a lot of these problems, because we’re so poor, because we’re rural, because we have this drug misuse epidemic.”

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On top of these issues, often school is a safe place for at-risk kids, and a lack of in-person schooling amplifies many of the problems these kids are experiencing. Teachers and school staff have shared concern that moving classes online means it’s harder to identify those at-risk kids and give them the support they need.

When school is in session, the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice set up a Handle with Care program. If a law enforcement officer sees a kid during a call, they will give just the kid’s name and the words “handle with care” to the school before the start of the next school day so that school staff and teachers can provide a little extra support. The Center for Children’s Justice had been thinking of continuing the program despite classes moving online.

“[Handle with Care notices] go to essential school staff 24/7 who can check on those kids and who care about those kids. Who can do porch visits [and say], ‘I miss you. School’s out, [but] I miss you so much. We can’t wait for school to get back together, but I just wanted to come to check on you, see how you’re doing, and see if you needed anything,” said Darr.

Schools have been encouraging teachers to lay eyes on their kids at least once a week despite school closure, whether it be on Zoom or as a porch visit. Still, since people can be so isolated during this time, Darr wants to remind anyone who sees kids at work to keep an eye open for signs that there’s trouble at home.

“During the pandemic, if kids aren’t in school and school staff aren’t seeing them, not a whole lot of people are seeing them, but who is seeing them? It’s the gas station attendant. It’s the convenient store clerk. It’s the grocery store workers, the postman, the pizza delivery guy. And for a lot of these people, it’s not on their radar,” explained Darr, “It’s not in their job description, and they’re not on alert for that, but they’re the only ones seeing these kids.”

You’re helping to build a picture. You’re a piece of the puzzle. Kids aren’t supposed to be asking people for help and asking people what they need to do to be safe, right? It’s our job to keep them safe. They don’t have the words to articulate what they need. They’re just little kids, and it’s all of our responsibility to take care of those kids.

Andrea Darr, Director, WV Center for Children’s Justice

The Center for Children’s Justice created a flyer on their website that tells essential workers what to look for and who to call if they suspect abuse. The flyer emphasizes that even if you don’t have all the details, it’s still important to call.

“Odds are, you’re not the first person who has called, so there’s probably a little file,” said Darr, “And the goal of child protective services is to help kids. People think [that] they’re just going to take those kids out of that home. That’s the last thing they want to do. They want to provide resources and services so that child and family can stabilize [and] they can stay at the home.”

Darr also wants to remind families that are struggling right now that there is a free number they can call to find resources in their area.

“Every county has a Family Resource Network, and one of [the director’s] main jobs is to create a directory every year of every service in that county. So if somebody needs help, they’re going to call, and they’re going to know exactly where to direct them. Those services can be food, transportation, clothing, help with utilities, help with housing. If you have a need, you call FRNs, but the easiest way to reach the FRN is through 211,” explained Darr.

WV 211 can be reached 24/7 by calling 2-1-1 on the phone, texting a zip code to 898-211, or chatting online through the 211 website.

Some phones that use VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) or Wi-Fi calling might not be able to reach 211. If that is the case, 211 can be accessed through their toll-free number: 1-833-848-9905.

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