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FOCUS Program helps kids exposed to trauma
Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager presented an update on the FOCUS Program to the Board of Trustees Tuesday evening. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

“Handle with care.” Those three small words can have a huge impact on students throughout Turlock Unified School District who may have been exposed to violence or trauma, thanks to a program that has quietly worked to help lessen the effects of traumatic experiences on children throughout Stanislaus County over the past year and a half.

On Tuesday evening, the Board of Trustees received an update on the Focusing On Children Under Stress, or FOCUS, Program, implemented throughout the county last April. A partnership between the Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office, the FOCUS Program was modeled after a similar program in West Virginia called Handle With Care, which allows law enforcement agents who encounter a child in a traumatic event (i.e. domestic violence, child abuse, death in the family, witness to a crime, loss of home due to a house fire, etc.) to collect the child’s name, date of birth and his or her school. Then, that officer proceeds to alert the child’s school that the student has been exposed to violence or trauma, and to handle them with care.

“For law enforcement, if we go out and do a search warrant, we hit the house hoping that everything there is what you’re looking for, but you also do your homework and make sure there are no children there,” said George Papadopoulos, an investigator with the County DA’s Office. “That doesn’t always happen, and the unfortunate thing is when we came across children before the program started here in our county, our resource was to turn them over to Child Protective Services.”

Inspired by West Virginia’s program to provide children with a more stable alternative in the aftermath of traumatic events, Papadopoulos and Maribel Garcia of the Stanislaus County Probation Department decided to bring the Handle With Care ideals to Stanislaus County, but added a few tweaks of their own.

FOCUS supports children exposed to violence and trauma through improved communication and collaboration with all first responders, not just law enforcement, schools and community resources.

If a first responder encounters a child who may have been exposed to a traumatic event, that child’s information is included in a FOCUS Notification that is sent out to Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency, which will then forward the notification to the designated school official as soon as possible.

“Before, CPS would come out, take the child and say ‘Don’t worry, everything is going to be okay. We’re going to take you to a stranger’s house, a foster home, and you’ll be in school with your friends tomorrow and everything is going to be okay,’” said Papadopoulos.

Now, those children will be “handled with care,” thanks to the FOCUS Program, which began as a pilot program in Oakdale, Patterson and Newman. Now, the program is present in 26 school districts throughout the county, with 10 participating first responder agencies. Turlock joined the program in April 2016.

The program’s main goal is to ensure students continue to perform at their highest levels academically, despite the troubles they may have faced at home. The program’s FOCUS Notification alerts the school that the child may have been exposed to a traumatic incident and may exhibit or develop academic/behavioral problems. No specific details about the incident are given, and a designated school official will receive the notification and alert the child’s teacher, who will then observe the child and utilize trauma sensitive interventions as deemed appropriate. Further action will be referred to the school counselor.

In Stanislaus County, the program saw 112 total referrals from April 2016 to June 2017, assisting 173 students. The program’s success caught the attention of State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson, who sent out a letter at the beginning of the month urging other counties throughout the state to follow Stanislaus County’s lead on the issue.

Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager gave an update on the program to the TUSD Board to remind them the program was in place, she said.

“It compliments, a lot, what we’ve tried to do as a District,” said Board Member Frank Lima, pointing out TUSD’s School Resource Officers, Turlock Chaplaincy Character Coaches and the overall positive relationship the District has with law enforcement.

“I really like the fact of the speed at which this occurs,” said Board Member Ken Malech. “Within seconds or minutes, the school is aware of an incident that may have happened the previous night, and the school can take care of that child when they come to school that day. I can tell you, I’m a teacher…. you definitely have to take care of the whole child for them to learn, and this is a good thing.”