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Gentler handling of kids exposed to violence
FOCUS program helps students after crisis
Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager presented an update on the FOCUS Program to a local School Board last week. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Courier

A new county program enacted in April 2016 is treating children who have been exposed to traumatic events - such as domestic violence, child abuse, deaths in the family, witness to a crime, and loss of home due to a fire - with tender, loving care.

Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager gave an update on the FOCUS program to the Turlock School Board recently.

FOCUS stands for Focusing On Children Under Stress, and is a partnership between the Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office. The program is modeled after one in West Virginia called Handle With Care. It allows police officers who encounter a child involved in a traumatic event to collect the child's name, birthdate and name of school. The officer then notifies school officials that the child has been exposed to violence or trauma, and to handle them with care. Local officials tweaked the West Virginia model a bit.

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 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, said George Papadopoulos, an investigator with the DA's Office. "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."

Now, those children will be "handled with care," thanks to FOCUS, which began as a pilot program in Oakdale, Patterson and Newman. Now, 26 districts, including Ceres Unified, are involved with 10 participating first responder agencies.

The chief goal of the program is to ensure students continue to perform at their highest levels academically, despite troubles they've witnessed. FOCUS tips off schools that the child may have been exposed to a traumatic event and may exhibit or develop academic/behavioral problems. No specific details about the trauma will be offered. The school official receiving the notification will 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.