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, Bilchik said. 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.”

BUT A MONTH DEDICATED 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.

FOR LAURIE MARKON, Alexandria’s SCAN honoree, that means looking at abuse a generation before it starts. Markon works in the Domestic Violence Program of the Alexandria Office on Women, serving women who have been the victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

But Markon focuses on less obvious victims: the children of those women. “They’re secondary victims, but they’re traumatized by it,” she said. “Often, kids are like the hidden victims.”

She provides counseling for children who have seen their mothers, their siblings and sometimes themselves beaten, or watched their mothers suffer through the aftermath of a sexual assault, or of being stalked.

“She helps children under stand they are not responsible for the violence, nor can they stop if from happening,” said Virginia First Lady Lisa Collis, presenting Markon with her Allies in Prevention award.

That is key to preventing abuse, Markon said: breaking the cycle before it gets started. “We’re shifting from intervention to prevention … to keep these kids from growing up to become those abusers,” she said.