LACONIA — A program in Laconia, Manchester and Somersworth that enables police officers to get help quickly for children in crisis is expanding to Gilford, Belmont, Tilton, Northfield and Sanbornton, offering counseling and connections for families and children by phone and Zoom – potentially reaching more families at risk in rural areas, according to program experts.

ACERT, which stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences Response Team, was founded in Manchester in 2015 and adopted by Laconia in 2019, and has become a model for helping kids who have experienced trauma. And it may be on the brink of expanding nationwide if funding is approved by Congress.

“Our goal is to take this model and grow it across the state and the country. It’s about taking care of kids and making sure they have bright futures,” said Congressman Chris Pappas, D-Manchester, at a meeting Thursday of New Hampshire’s ACERT officers and coordinators. Pappas and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, through a proposed National ACERT Grant Program Authorization Act, are asking for federal money to expand ACERT training to police departments and first responders in communities around the country.

It’s a move met with applause by ACERT advocates. Support for expanding the popular and efficient referral system remains strong.

“This is the most invested we in law enforcement have ever been in our children,” said Eric Adams, ACERT officer at the Laconia Police Department, who helped start Laconia’s program in September 2019. “It’s great to have push for this program nationally.”

"The door is open faster than before. There's a lot of buy in" from police officers, said Lt. Matt Larochelle, ACERT officer at the Manchester Police Department, which saw a jump in referrals for children in crisis before the pandemic caused a steep drop.

In the state's largest city, ACERT referrals plummeted in 2020 to half the year-long number in 2019, according to program records. Between March and June, 17 referrals were made, compared to 95 during the same period in 2019. Adams said ACERT referrals in Laconia have held steady. But the program, which started five months before the pandemic, is still ramping up and trying to get the word out to families locally. 

Since its inception ACERT has become a national model for ensuring that children who witness or experience violence at home or other disturbing events will get mental health care before the effects of trauma set in. During COVID, the Lakes Region has seen an increase in domestic violence, necessitating more timely help for kids, said Kerri Lowe, ACERT coordinator at Laconia's Family Resource Center. Since the pandemic, there have been more referrals for domestic violence – 17 so far – and the situations have been more serious, with a greater potential for injury or death, according to Lowe and the New Beginnings shelter and crisis center. During 2020, Laconia police made 152 arrests for domestic violence, compared to 135 in 2019.

ACERT was created in response to a 1998 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente which found that adverse childhood experiences or ACES –  including trauma, abuse and neglect – increase a child’s likelihood of chronic mental and physical illness as an adult. They can affect career and school achievement, job stability, the likelihood of incarceration, and even lifespan, the study showed.

ACES include exposure to substance misuse, domestic violence, mental health issues of family members, and the emotional effects of having a parent in jail or unable to provide care because of disability or chronic illness.

 “Many of these have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Lara Quiroga, director of Strategic Initiatives for Children at Amoskeag Health, and co-founder of ACERT in Manchester. “What mitigates that are the interventions we can do with families, the sooner the better.  It builds resilience and mitigates risk for poor behavioral outcomes later.”

ACERT community coordinators hope a combination of in-person and virtual services will expand the program’s reach after the pandemic subsides. This will allow more people at risk in rural areas to access help when time and transportation remain barriers, said Erin Pettengill, vice president of the Family Resource Center at Lakes Region Community Services, who helped jumpstart the program here.

Outreach challenges have surfaced during the pandemic and continue in the New Hampshire communities with ACERT. While parents and children have been able to be reached through phone calls and Zoom, including many who were not connected to help before COVID, internet instability and WiFi problems have been common. And fewer parents are signing releases for their kids to receive services, according to ACERT officers and coordinators.

“COVID has put speed bumps in how we reach these kids,” said Larochelle, ACERT officer in Manchester. “We’re not doing as much in person and door-to-door as we’d like to. We want to be on the front porch or standing in their kitchens,” offering resources to their traumatized children who may be fearful of what might happen next. “We want to be breaking down barriers when they see a police officer standing outside.”

Some families worry about increased exposure to the virus. Some believe that ACERT is an arm of DCYF, the state's Division of Child, Youth and Family Services, which is not the case, Adams said. "This is not DCYF. This is an opportunity to get services for your children," said Adams. "Everybody needs a little help sometimes."

Others are tired of meeting by Zoom, or reluctant to follow through with ACERT's recommendations.

"Families are not wanting to take that additional referral that's going to keep them on Zoom for another hour," said Caitlin Massey, director of the Strafford County Childhood Advocacy Center.

“Families are really Zoomed out," said Lowe, ACERT coordinator for Laconia. "Kids are online doing staggered schedules. When someone asks, ‘Would you like to be connected to mental health services?’ That’s going to be one more Zoom meeting” in a lineup. Lowe hopes in-person counseling will soon be available once a month. “ACERT is supposed to be that safety net to get parents and children into a safe and nurturing environment.”

Laconia's program is unique in that Lowe also works for the Family Resource Center, which offers early childhood supports, help for children with disabilities, and parent education, which is especially valuable during isolating times.

"Children's stress and trauma is really compounded now," said Lowe. "They're not having typical connections, especially if they're not in school as often as before. It's really important to sign that release." Without that, the police can't send her any information about a family in need or child who has been through something traumatic.

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