An Ounce of Prevention

An Ounce of Prevention

Awards honor those who try to stop child abuse before it starts.

It was April Fool’s Day, Shay Bilchik said, but he just didn’t have the heart for a joke. "I thought I would try a little put-on," he said. "But I failed. There’s not much funny about the mistreatment of children."

As the keynote speaker at a luncheon for employees and volunteers in child abuse prevention programs from across Northern Virginia, Bilchik found an audience ready to agree. But there were some positive aspects, said Bilchik, president of the Child Welfare League of America. Child abuse "can be prevented. And if it’s already occurred, children can heal."

Prevention was the highlight at last Thursday’s luncheon, when Alexandria non-profit SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now) of Northern Virginia honored its 2004 Allies in Prevention award winners. The event also kicked off SCAN’s Blue Ribbon Campaign, focusing on child abuse prevention during the month of April.

In 1982, Pres. Ronald Reagan proclaimed April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, and state and federal agencies have followed suit in the 21 years since, making Blue Ribbon campaigns annual spring events for children’s services workers nationwide.

It’s a good way to get public attention, said SCAN executive director Diane Charles. "We’re planning to distribute 30,000 blue ribbons throughout Northern Virginia. We want you to help us get in the nooks and crannies."

<b>BUT A MONTH DEDICATED</b> to child abuse prevention might be a sad redundancy for the audience, said SCAN Board President Tom Hay. "All of you work every month on child abuse prevention."

General Assembly members from Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax showed up for the awards, taking a break from budget debates in Richmond. Fairfax supervisors, an Arlington juvenile court judge and U.S. Rep Jim Moran (D-8) also came to applaud the efforts of the honorees, along with employees of the Freddie Mac Foundation, which sponsored the awards.

Elected officials, non-profits and corporations also play crucial roles in SCAN’s mission, said Bilchik. Too often, child abuse prevention isn’t a priority for government agencies, he said: they are wrapped up in a rearguard action, monitoring families where abuse has already been discovered.

"Overcoming the trauma of abuse and the damage of neglect requires effort from a range of organizations," he said. "The impetus can come from the school system, or from social services. It may come from a corporation."

What is most important, he said, is what the SCAN honorees emphasize: Finding an environment where children might be abused, and finding a way to prevent the abuse beforehand.

<b>WITH PROJECT FAMILY,</B> Arlington’s SCAN honoree and Project coordinator Gloria Starr tries to prevent child abuse before the child has arrived. The county parenting program, run in partnership with the League of United Latin-American Citizens, draws participants from the Arlington Free Clinic. When expectant mothers show up for pre-natal screenings, doctors refer them to Project Family, said Starr.

"We recruit them there, then continue when the children get older," she said. "We have the children with their parents in the program, from the moment they’re pregnant through pre-school."

Based on a program in Venezuela, Project Family/Proyecto Familia has offered classes in Spanish since its inception in 1989, and recently began offering English-language classes as well, said Starr.

The mothers (and fathers) come for parenting classes, teaching them how babies develop, how to handle the stresses of bringing up a child and how to encourage education for a child.

"It’s through playing," said Starr. "We teach in a very nurturing, caring environment," with volunteer teachers like a teacher from Wolf Trap, an area musician, a nutritionist, a librarian and, for expecting mothers, a tour of Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington, conducted by obstetrician Michael Fernandez.

<b>WITH CHILDREN</b> and their parents developing a long-term relationship with Project Family staff, it lets staff see if children are developing on-schedule, said Starr, and also creates a comfort zone for parents.

"If there are any incidents of abuse, any kind of situation, they feel comfortable about telling us, and we can immediately make referrals," she said.

Some parents are hesitant about starting the program, especially those sent to Project Family through a court order, said George Varoutsos chief judge of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations court. "They’re always reluctant, but by the end, they never want to leave."

That’s because Project Family functions as a support group for parents and children, said Starr. "We had a father court-mandated to take the class. When he came, he saw all the women," she said, and he wanted to walk out. "But by the end, he didn’t want to leave the program."