Helping Families Thrive: A New Approach to Child Abuse Prevention  

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2023

Author: Valerie L’Herrou/VPLC Family & Child Welfare Attorney

Around the country and here in Virginia, every April is designated “Child Abuse Prevention Month.” But at VPLC, we think this term is misleading.  

Why? Because we believe that the best way to help children is to help families thrive. 

Most cases of child abuse are actually cases of neglect, not abuse.  

And neglect is often caused by lack of resources, support, and services. Poverty and stress can push families to the breaking point. 

But our system doesn’t help these families. We don’t ask (except in DC and New York, where it’s required by law): is the harm of removing a child from her parents outweighed by the risk of remaining at home? What can we do to keep this child safe with her family? Instead, it tears them apart. It removes children from their parents without considering the well-documented harm this causes to children. It ignores the needs and strengths of each family. It perpetuates a racist belief that poor children of color are better off with white caregivers. 

Our system breaks our children’s hearts. Especially in Virginia, with one of the highest rates of children aging out of care without a permanent family, a large number of these children will not only never regain their own family– they do not have any family. 

We need a new approach. One that respects the rights and dignity of families. One that provides them with the help they need to meet the needs of their children. One that prevents harm before it happens. And one that ensures if children must be separated, we provide the proper support for parents to successfully reunite with their children. 

That’s why we advocate for policies that support families before they reach a crisis point. Policies that empower families to make their own decisions and stay together. Policies that have been shown to work. Policies such as: 

The minimum wage. Every $1 increase in the minimum wage results in a 10% drop in reports of child neglect. 

Child Care. Why don’t we provide universal childcare? Instead, we force parents to make a terrible choice between working to support their child, and keeping their child safe. 

Universal Basic Income. If parents had a base amount of income they could rely upon to meet their basic needs, they would be less stressed. Then, their own efforts would lift their families out of poverty and provide for things that allow a child to thrive—like visits to museums, or music lessons. UBI also has been shown to make it easier for women to leave abusive situations, as they no longer have to depend on their abusive breadwinner. 

Refundable Child Tax Credit. Congress funded this for a short time. It lifted millions of children out of poverty. We know parents spent this money on things their families needed. Then: we dropped them right back into poverty. 

Affordable Housing. 13% of the children in foster care in Virginia are there because families have lost their housing. 

Better trained and compensated lawyers for parents. All three permanency goals for children are achieved faster – without loss of safety—when parents have better legal counsel with wrap-around, parent-centered support services. We need attorneys who challenge the increasing demands on the parent by DSS – and ask, “why can’t this child go home today?” 

Better instruction for GALs, trained in what is in a child’s best interests, not left to rely on their own experiences and biases. A truly trauma-informed court system that considers the parents’ trauma as well. 

Dyadic substance use treatment. Babies recover best from Newborn Abstinence Syndrome when they have skin-to-skin contact with mom. We have 6-7 dyadic treatment centers in Virginia, that would meet the criteria for federal reimbursement, if we were to certify them for this purpose. 

At Virginia Poverty Law Center, we don’t observe Child Abuse Prevention Month. We observe Family Thriving Month. Join us in redefining what it means to protect children and support families. 

(This blog is adapted from a speech given at Child Abuse Prevention Advocacy Day in Richmond.) 

Attorney accepting award

Valerie L’Herrou is recognized by Families Forward Virginia for her work championing children.

CONTACT: Connie Stevens, Communications Director, Virginia Poverty Law Center
(c) 540-354-8597, (o) 804-659-7368

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