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Imagine you are a stressed-out parent.

Perhaps you’re juggling two jobs, struggling with depression or anxiety, worried about making ends meet, afraid of being evicted from your home.

Your child is misbehaving, demanding, pushing your buttons. You have a moment when you think: “I just can’t take it anymore.” In that moment, who are you going to call for help?

Anyone who has ever raised a child knows it can be stressful and support is needed (yes, it takes a village!).

Many of us have family or friends who provide a network of support, or babysitters we can afford to pay for an evening off.

Even so, we might benefit from parenting classes — or advice on dealing with a demanding child, coping with several small children, or handling the challenges of adolescence.

But many parents who struggle — to make ends meet, with post-partum depression, in abusive relationships, with a special needs child, or to find safe and affordable child care — may find such stresses overwhelming, especially if they are socially isolated.

Some parents may come perilously close to neglecting or abusing a child.

What if things were different?

Because our child-protection system currently is viewed as punitive — that is, if Child Protective Services is involved, the family risks losing the child — families rarely seek out help even if they recognize they need to improve their parenting.

CPS therefore is less a child-protective service than a reactive service — getting involved only after a report of neglect or abuse has already been made, usually by a teacher, doctor, or concerned neighbor.

What if things were different, though?

What if we truly sought to protect children long before a family had crossed the line — or was even close to it?

What if we assumed having a great commonwealth means we all have a stake in helping all our families to do well? What if our goal was not just to prevent child maltreatment, but to make sure all Virginia families and children are able to thrive?

Virginia is poised to be on the forefront of a new federal law: The Families First Prevention Services Act of 2018 makes major changes to how federal funds that pay for the bulk of foster care can be used by the states.

The first provisions of the act go into effect in fall of 2019, requiring states to make some legislative changes to take advantage of these funds.

The act’s changes are designed to help states prevent children from entering foster care under certain circumstances.

Social services departments can shift services toward keeping children safely at home or supporting the reintegration of foster children back into their own families when they can be returned. The funding will also help states provide information and services to kin who take in relative children when birth parents are unable to parent.

Virginia’s Department of Social Services is moving quickly, in advance of many states, to take advantage of these funding changes.

It has opted not to request an available two-year delay. And it is drawing upon a group of experts from all three branches of government — as well as advocacy groups and nonprofit child-serving organizations — from around the commonwealth, and has already made great headway in preparing to take advantage of this law.

Where Virginia struggles 

Virginia, like many states, struggles with three important goals for children in foster care:

  1. Helping parents make changes to enable them to regain custody of their children.
  2. Placing foster children with relatives.
  3. Finding adoptive families for children whose parental rights have been terminated.

Because the commonwealth’s rates on the first two goals are lower than the national average, we have a high rate of children who leave foster care without a permanent family.

The new changes will allow Virginia to improve its response to children at risk of entering foster care due to neglect or abuse by: allowing more children to remain safely at home; helping parents of children who are removed to be successful when reunited; and supporting options such as kinship care (where children who cannot be returned to birth parents are nonetheless able to maintain connections to their family).

The federal act requires that provided services must be proven effective and “trauma-informed.”

That means they must recognize that children at risk of entering foster care — and likely their parents as well — have suffered from traumatic events in their lives.

Childhood histories of trauma (Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs), including neglect, abuse, witnessing violence, parents with addiction disorders and loss of parents (including entering foster care), can change the way a child’s brain develops, and affect a person throughout life.

In fact, one longitudinal study in Finland found that adults who experienced trauma in early childhood had elevated stress hormones in their blood even as they entered old age. Under the act, interventions must be designed to minimize trauma’s continuing effect on generations of families.

Changing attitudes

Funding to prevent entry into foster care is a huge shift in federal policy, which currently funds services provided to a family only after a child is removed.

Unfortunately, the act only funds those interventions known as “tertiary,” or “indicated,” prevention: that is, provided to those families individually identified by CPS as needing help to prevent a child from entering foster care.

This will have positive effects for families that, without such intervention, CPS would seek removal of a child and enable many parents who struggle to be nurturing and protective learn to keep their children safe, happy and healthy.

However, what the FFPSA will not cover are those strategies known as “primary” or “secondary” prevention.

These prevention efforts seek to prevent child neglect and abuse before a family has even come to the attention of CPS.

Effective programs take a positive, non-judgmental approach that normalizes the need for all parents to learn effective, nurturing parenting — so that parents feel a sense of individual efficacy, rather than shame, after receiving help.

Primary prevention (also known as “universal prevention”) strategies are designed to reduce the overall incidence of child neglect and abuse, without regard to risk factors.

These approaches assume any parent may benefit from help, and all of us benefit when all children are happy, healthy, and safe.

Similarly, secondary prevention (also called “targeted prevention”) efforts focus on those who have not actually neglected or abused their children; but are targeted to specific, high-risk populations, such as those with mental health issues, or those living in an economically-distressed area.

The great thing about these types of prevention strategies is they also work well for indicated prevention—and the “blended prevention” approach has been shown to meet a broad range of family needs that can impact the rate of child maltreatment.

“Home visiting” — where a trained professional visits a family, provides advice and support and helps link the family to any needed services —  in addition to being a cost-effective way to ensure all children are healthy, safe and prepared for school, reduces the incidence of child neglect and abuse among at-risk families and improves parenting in identified families, reducing the need for family intervention.

Other successful programs may not even be specifically designed to prevent abuse: children in Head Start, for example, are less likely to be the subject of a substantiated report of physical or sexual abuse.

Many universal prevention programs provide broad community education on issues, such as safe sleep, or avoiding shaken baby syndrome, while others, such as “Triple P Positive Parenting,” draw on principles of community psychology and public health to help parents and communities collectively learn about child development and be effective in communicating with and responding to their children.

All effective universal approaches seek to change public and individual attitudes and behaviors to help keep children safe, healthy and protected.

One of the most important universal prevention programs, though, is a commitment to ensuring all families have what they need to succeed.

While poverty does not cause child maltreatment, families without adequate economic support and access to basic needs such as child care may struggle to maintain a safe nurturing environment.

Family supports, including those things that make a family secure and safe can ensure children are not just safe and healthy, but successful in school and financially secure as adults.

They include: subsidized child care; having enough food; access to health care (especially maternal mental health and substance disorder treatment); policies reducing the state income tax burden on low-income families; or simply safe, secure, affordable housing.

Some of our received wisdom about families creates barriers to a Virginia where all children can be safe, secure, healthy, resilient and able to fulfill their promise.

Those involve beliefs about self-reliance; that some families are “deserving” and others are not; or providing judgmental or punishment-focused interventions rather than education and non-judgmental offers of help.

The FFPSA will remake the way we’ve been responding to some families who are already experiencing problems.

But are we ready to remake the way we think about our responsibility to all children — who, after all, are our future? Are we ready to be truly protective, not just reactive and not adding trauma to a vulnerable family?

Ensuring all families have access to the resources they need and are able to reach out for help without shame can help all of Virginia’s families and children to thrive and make a better commonwealth for all of us.

The opinions of guest columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Virginia Mercury.