A new pilot project, based after a successful West Virginia program that assisted children of traumatic incidents, is being implemented in Stanislaus County with three cities – Oakdale, Patterson, and Newman – stepping forward to be the first to put it in place.
“Focusing On Children Under Stress” or “FOCUS” as it will be commonly known, is a way for police and other first responders to notify a child’s school when that child has been involved in a call of a crime, violence or abuse.
“Our goal is to have schools notified prior to, or at the beginning of the next school day,” George Papadopoulos of the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office said in a presentation to Oakdale police personnel in a training session in late May. “FOCUS ensures children exposed to trauma will receive appropriate resources to succeed.”
Papadopoulos said children in those circumstances frequently display negative behaviors not normally characteristic of them in the past.
The program’s goal to give school administrators and teachers “a heads-up” that law enforcement was called and something bad recently happened that might explain a child being withdrawn or angry or just something as simple as missed homework.
Papadopoulos and Stanislaus Probation Officer Maribel Garcia, who assisted with the police training, first learned of the innovative program when they were attending a Drug Endangered Children conference and the West Virginia program, Handle With Care, was one of the presentations.
According to Papadopoulos, West Virginia information showed 95 percent of incidents involving those effected children can be handled at the school level with notifications, but still can be referred to outside resources to take care of the child’s needs.
“I’ve been in law enforcement for a long time,” said Papadopoulos, a 43-year law enforcement veteran. “Why hasn’t someone thought of this before?”
Papadopoulos said past practice for police was to turn children affected by law enforcement actions over to Child Protective Services with no other action by officers regarding the child’s welfare.
“But the child is later in school still thinking about the incident,” he said. “This notification gives the teacher information that something happened in this child’s life.”
Garcia said confidentiality laws keep that notice very sparse other than a reason to explain potential behavior changes or trauma.
When Papadopoulos and Garcia returned from their training they teamed with the Stanislaus County Office of Education to get the program in place.
Papadopoulos said they made a presentation at a Stanislaus County Law Enforcement Executives meeting of the sheriff and local police chiefs and Chief Lester Jenkins was one of the first chiefs to volunteer his department to participate.
The program commenced May 1 and already Oakdale Police has made five notifications to FOCUS.
Stanislaus County is the first county in the state to start a program of this kind. Papadopoulos hopes to have all 25 school districts and associated law enforcement and fire agencies participating in the program soon.
According to Papadopoulos, the new program will extend to all first responders – police, fire, ambulance services, crews most likely to see children when and after traumatic things happen to them.
“FOCUS doesn’t excuse bad behavior, it still holds accountability,” Garcia said. “We want all the children to succeed regardless of their environment.”