HUNTINGTON — While first lady Melania Trump appeared to be impressed with Huntington’s response to the opioid epidemic, what she was most concerned about during her trip to town Monday was how addiction is affecting the children of West Virginia.
The first lady, joined by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, heard from state and local leaders during a roundtable discussion on opioids at the Cabell Huntington Health Department. During the discussion, Trump asked questions about how programs like the Quick Response Team handle children and if there were prevention efforts in schools. She also met with a local mother and her 5-month-old son who were clients of Lily’s Place and made a stop in Ritter Park to view the American flag display representing the West Virginian children in foster care.
Cathy Slemp, state health officer, said while the state has prevention programs in schools, the one area where West Virginia is lacking is addiction treatment for youth. She said she also wants to see schools be able to better identify at-risk students and connect them with services earlier.
“It’s an area we are working on, but we aren’t there yet,” Slemp said. “We know with exposure to adverse childhood effects and trauma, we are setting up the next generation of victims of this epidemic.”
Connie Priddy, QRT program coordinator, said, surprisingly, the QRT has not had a lot of interaction with children when they make house visits despite many first responders witnessing children being on the scene of overdose calls.
Trump also learned about the Handle With Care program, which was first started in Kanawha County in 2013 and has now been adopted in every West Virginia county and 27 states. The program alerts schools to law enforcement activity at the students’ home, reminding educators to handle that child with care as he or she processes the trauma of a parent being arrested, for example.
Chad Napier, now with the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, was a Charleston police officer when Handle With Care first started. He said once you learn the child’s story, you really can invest in them.
Napier said the first lady could help expand Handle With Care to all 50 states.
“One caring adult can make a big impact on a child,” Napier said.
Slemp said a new initiative in the northern part of the state, the Martinsburg Initiative, takes the idea “one caring adult can make an impact” and runs with it. The school system is working to identify children with adverse childhood effects, or ACES, which studies show increase the risk of addiction, and provide them with holistic services, including connecting them with an adult.
“If a child has interests in planes, then they connect them with a retired pilot,” Slemp said.
Connection and empathy were touted as one of the main reasons Huntington and Cabell County’s programs have worked.
After the roundtable, Trump sat down for a more intimate discussion with Lily’s Place Executive Director Rebecca Crowder, recovery coach Alicia Bowman, first responder wellness program coordinator Amy Berner, Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader and Megan Pawley, a Lily’s Place client.
Pawley said Lily’s Place saved her and her son’s lives.
“Without Lily’s Place, I wouldn’t have gotten into Project Hope and I don’t know if I would have kept my son,” she said. “He’s doing so good now and hitting all his milestones. I’m really excited for the future.”
Trump’s visit coincided with her campaign, Be Best, which focuses on major issues facing children today, including opioids.
“The opioid crisis is a critical issue that has impacted many in our country,” Trump said. “I want to thank you all for the work you are doing. Our administration continues to work hard to fight against opioid addiction.”
She said she was there to give her support.
While Trump stopped at Ritter Park and then flew home to Washington, DHS Secretary McAleenan continued to tour Huntington with Sens. Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin and U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, visiting Cabell County Drug Court and the Marshall University Forensic Science Center.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.