LACONIA — First District Congressman Chris Pappas said it’s no secret that trauma is affecting a staggering number of children in New Hampshire.
On Wednesday, he met with members of the Adverse Childhood Experience Response Team (ACERT) members in Laconia to hear firsthand about local efforts to support and nurture kids so that they can reach their full potential.
“This is an innovative program that allows the city of Laconia to better address childhood trauma. This type of partnership is what New Hampshire does best,” Pappas said.
During what was billed as a community conversation, the Manchester lawmaker heard how Laconia has created a program to connect children and their families with resources to not only help them heal from trauma, but also build protective factors that can lessen the impact of future traumatic experiences, such as abuse, neglect or exposure to other fearful events.
“The response has been overwhelming. Everyone realized that this is a gap and a need. Now we need to focus on letting families know that this exists,” said Kerri Lowe, ACERT Coordinator at the Family Resource Center.
McKenzie Harrington-Bacote, who heads the Office of School Wellness and is also the grants administrator for the Laconia School District, told Pappas that each of the city’s schools has a social worker.
“This is a very unique model and we are being very strategic in how we are rolling it out because we want it to be replicated,” she explained.
In response to questions from Pappas, Harrington-Bacote said in the six years she has worked in the district there has been a steady increase in behavioral issues and with younger children in preschool and kindergarten, a statewide trend. One quarter of the city’s students come from households with drug addiction and many are themselves born drug-addicted.
When children come to school burdened with adverse experiences, Harrington-Bacote said, they pass that trauma on to staff. That realization prompted the hiring of social workers and the development of a 10-question assessment to determine what was happening in a child’s family.
They now have mental health clinicians on-site to work with students and social workers help make the bridge to families, who are then connected with various resources. A grief counseling group was formed after four elementary students in the same school each suffered the death of a parent, she recounted.
“The problem is we don’t have any money for this, hence my role,” Harrington-Bacote told Pappas.
Laconia police officer Eric Adams recounted that his officers expressed their frustration that they had few options at their disposal to help a child whose family was in crisis, outside of calling the Division of Children, Youth and Families.
Officers had the option of either walking away or notifying DCYF, a move that would likely result in a child being removed from their family, Adams said. By law, officers are precluded from contacting the school or the family resource center and sharing any information about a family with whom they have had contact.
Since ACERT was formed, Adams said, the police department has worked to develop a release form that, when signed by a parent, allows a referral to be made.
“This is a perfect fit. Officers know that they can make this referral and that families will get the services that they need,” he said.