Beyond the Stigma: Team goes door to door to help child victims of extreme trauma
By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM New Hampshire Union Leader
From left, Katie Parent from the YWCA, Wanda Castillo from Manchester Community Health Center and Manchester Detective Michael Valenti are part of ACERT, a team that helps connect children who have been exposed to traumatic events with services that can mitigate that trauma. (Shawne K. Wickham/Union Leader)
On a late-summer evening, a trio sets out from the Manchester police station, armed with case folders, bulletproof vests - and colorful toys.
This is ACERT, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Response Team, and there's nothing quite like it in the nation.
A partnership among Manchester police, YWCA New Hampshire and the Manchester Community Health Center, ACERT responds after incidents in which children have been exposed to traumatic events such as drug overdoses, domestic violence and other crimes. A few days later, a team visits the family to explain that services are available, including support groups, counseling, even art and equine therapy - most of them free of charge.
Detective Michael Valenti, Katie Parent, community education coordinator at the YWCA, and Wanda Castillo, a community health worker from MCHC, start their shift in the roll call room, reviewing the cases they'll visit. Then the two women gather up bulletproof vests and a satchel filled with crocheted toys for the kids. They set out in an unmarked car, a white Chevy Impala.
Valenti used to be a school resource officer; he now investigates child sexual assaults for the juvenile unit. For him, ACERT is a natural extension of his regular police work. "Kids who see such difficult things in life really need an outlet," he said. "This is a really good way to get them to the services they need."
Parent is riding shotgun so she gets to pick the radio station. She opts for a mix channel. "I'm a country music fan, but I feel that's a little divisive," she says.
Valenti said he knows people get nervous when they see a police officer at their door. That's why he backs off once the introductions are made and lets his teammates talk. "I'm there to make sure everyone's safe," he said. "They're there to explain the services."
Studies show that childhood trauma can lead to difficulties later in life, from substance abuse and mental health issues to diabetes, obesity and heart disease. But they also show that early intervention can mitigate the harm.
ACERT is not about blaming the parents; it's about helping the children, Valenti said. "It's a fresh start," he said. "This is why we're here."
After a quick stop for coffee, they head to an apartment building on the West Side, where an 8-year-old boy had witnessed a domestic incident a few nights earlier that ended with his mother's arrest.
Valenti wears his Kevlar vest by force of habit; the two women leave theirs in the cruiser - "unless the officer tells us it's particularly high-risk," Parent said.
It's not the image she wants to present to families who are already stressed, she said, "like we're almost making an assumption about them."
The man who answers the door says the woman they're looking for, the boy's mom, has moved out; he gives the detective her new address. So the team heads back across the river to track her down.
Valenti knows the building they're going to; it was the site of a carfentanil bust six months earlier.
An older man answers the door when Valenti knocks. The woman is not home and the boy is with his grandparents, he says. He's glad she's looking for help, he tells them. "She needs to get away from some people."
They leave a paper describing the available services and Valenti's cellphone number. If they don't hear from her, they'll come back.
Valenti has been a detective for nine years; his father was a cop and his brother is a canine handler for the department. He and his wife recently had a baby girl.
And that changed everything, he found.
"It's actually made my job much more difficult," he said. "Now everything hits home. It's definitely made it a lot more personal."
Another stop is at the home of a 4-year-old boy who had been found wandering by a neighbor. As the trio of adults approach the apartment building, a youngster's voice can be heard through an open window: "Mom, DCYF is here."
The team members exchange looks and Valenti calls out, "We're not DCYF."
Parent explains to the parents they're here to help. She gives them the list of available services and the mom signs a release that allows the ACERT coordinator, Mara Rouleau, an AmeriCorps victim assistance advocate, to contact her later. Her son is a really active little boy and some support would be good, the mom says.
It feels like a small victory, Parent says as they head back to the car. A 2016 graduate of the University of New Hampshire, she started out as an intern at the YWCA and landed a job there after graduation.
Valenti said they may never know how successful their efforts are in keeping these youngsters out of addiction, jail or other trouble down the road. "We're not going to see them if it works," he said.
Since the team launched in October 2015, ACERT has contacted more than 1,000 children in about 700 families.
Detective Peter Marr, who oversees ACERT for Manchester police, said the program has gotten widespread attention from other agencies that want to emulate what Manchester has done; it even attracted a visit from a delegation from Wales last year. But the three-year grant that created the project is about to run out and they're looking for new funding.
Marr said most of the parents they serve are not bad parents. "They're in crisis themselves and can barely deal with their own issues," he said. "We're trying to reach out and help them out with maybe getting their kids some help as well."
Castillo started her career with the Minority Health Coalition, doing peer education on HIV prevention. She's currently working with Manchester Community School Projects, embedded in city schools to connect families with available resources.
She's seen the difference something like ACERT can make. "When you intervene and there are resources in place for the kids, you can see change," she said.
Parents sometimes resist the offer for help; some say their kids are too young to have really been damaged by what happened, Castillo said. But she said studies show that even the youngest children can be affected by what they see and hear.
On the last stop of the night, Valenti calls for backup and a patrol car rolls up behind the Impala as darkness descends. The apartment house on Massabesic Street was the target of a recent SWAT raid that turned up guns and drugs. A man was arrested, but he's out on bail.
Three kids, ages 10, 3 and 6 months, witnessed the whole thing. "The main trauma was watching their dad get arrested," Parent explains. But there's likely more going on in the household. "I'm sure these kids have seen a lot of illegal activity," she said.
"Everyone stay in the car, OK?" Valenti says to his teammates.
By protocol, the officers have to check the building first.
If the man is home, Parent said, "We won't go in because he's a dangerous person. It's not safe."
But there's no one home, so the team heads back to the station to write up their case paperwork and call it a night.
Lara Quiroga is program director of Project LAUNCH (Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children's Health) at Manchester Community Health Center. She was part of the original team that created ACERT.
Quiroga said studies show that children with multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are far more likely to abuse substances themselves. "So if we think we have an opioid crisis now, if we don't do something to address ACEs and trauma, we're going to be looking at an exponentially worse situation in 10 or 20 years," she warned.
Connecting these children with services early on is crucial, Quiroga said. "We need to be doing things as a community that wrap our arms around children and families, and let them know that they are cared about," she said.
Jessica Sugrue, CEO of YWCA New Hampshire, previously worked at the state Division for Children, Youth and Families. She said it's impossible to completely eliminate childhood abuse and neglect. "The best you can hope for is that you're going to minimize it, and that we as a community will focus a little bit more on preventative efforts and not so much on putting out the fire once it's blazing," she said.
Marr said when he was a patrol officer, he saw children exposed to all sorts of terrible things. He remembers they found one child drawing on the body of his mother, dead from a drug overdose.
"We'd be walking out saying ... we're going to be dealing with that kid with these same problems in 10, 15 years, once they've grown up and moved out," he said. "It's just going to be a revolving door."
ACERT's mission is to stop that cycle, Marr said. "I wish we had thought of it years ago."
Beyond the Stigma, a series exploring solutions to the state's addiction and mental health challenges, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire, and private individuals. Contact reporter Shawne K. Wickham at firstname.lastname@example.org.