by Emily Freehling
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. A strong family is one of the strongest protective factors for a child who may be at risk for abuse. The Rappahannock Area Community Services Board is home to many programs that support parents, families and children, with the overall goal of preventing child abuse and other negative outcomes for children in the Fredericksburg region.
We sat down with leaders of two of those programs – Healthy Families Rappahannock Area and the Parent Education – Infant Development Program. They offer valuable perspective and practical advice that can help us all protect children in our community by strengthening parents and families.
Can you explain your respective programs, and what they do?
Alison Standring – Part C Coordinator, Parent Education – Infant Development Program (PE-ID):
The Parent Education – Infant Development Program provides early intervention services to infants and toddlers from birth to age 3 who have a developmental delay or disability. Services we provide are occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech language therapy, developmental education and service coordination. We receive referrals from parents, pediatricians, hospitals, social services and other RACSB programs. More often than not it’s the parent who calls us because the pediatrician recommended our services to them. We regularly visit the parents and children in our program and offer strategies parents can use to help their child between visits. We are there to help the parent help the child.
Davy Fearon Jr. – Program Manager, Healthy Families Rappahannock Area
We are a living, breathing instruction manual for parents of young children. We are a nationally accredited program that supports families through in-home visits. Our mission is to empower parents to raise healthy children. One way we do that is by reducing the stresses that our parents face. Our enrollment criteria is based on stressors. It’s not based on income. The level of income just plays into the amount of stress that one could have. There are so many things that can affect the level of stress a parent is under. They could be new to the area with no social support. They could have a child with a developmental delay and not know what to do. They could have mental health, substance abuse, financial, food or housing insecurity. We can refer families to other services that can help them, and we continue to support them as they work with these other programs. Community partnerships are huge to us, because we can’t do it all.
How important is it for parents to understand the developmental stages that infants and children go through? Can equipping parents with this knowledge help decrease the risk of abuse?
Alison – Understanding child development is critical for every parent. If they have higher expectations for what their child should be doing than what they are really capable of doing at their age, then that can set up a negative relationship between the parent and the child. It’s also important for parents to know that everything that happens in development is a foundation for the next step, and it’s not always good for a child to skip steps. The more a parent knows, the more they can advocate for their child with the pediatrician for the child’s health and development.
Davy – That plays into preventing child abuse and neglect because unchecked expectations can build into frustration. As a parent, if I’m expecting my child to be able to do a specific task, not knowing they shouldn’t even be there yet, that builds frustration. All of a sudden, in my mind, they’re bad, they’re not normal, they don’t listen. Gaining proper knowledge of the child’s developmental capabilities is essential to any and every parent. It’s not fair to stress out the baby—or yourself—with unrealistic expectations.
Babies and young children change quickly. How can parents stay up-to-date on what their child should be doing?
Alison – There are a number of apps that parents can download to their phones to understand what is coming next, what activities they can be doing with their child—easy things like that to keep on top of it. One that I recommend is the CDC’s Milestone Tracker. It’s available for both Apple and Android phones.
What are adverse childhood experiences, and why are they important to this discussion?
Alison – Adverse childhood experiences are often called ACEs. Unfortunately, they’re common and most of us have experienced some form of ACEs. They are important to understand because we all have a tendency to repeat past behaviors, so children can be at risk of experiencing adverse events their parents experienced as children. It could be neglect, a consistent raised voice in the home, witnessing domestic violence or losing a parent to divorce or incarceration.
Melodie Jennings, Program Supervisor – Healthy Families Rappahannock Area – It’s sometimes easy to assume that children won’t be affected by these experiences until they reach a certain age, but even an infant is affected by witnessing domestic violence. Any kind of lack of food in the home, or power being cut off, witnessing parents using drugs or consistently yelling at each other—all of these things can affect children and the adults they become.
Is being aware of the potential effect of adverse childhood experiences helpful?
Melodie – When you are able to help a family understand that these behaviors are affecting their child, it becomes a lot more likely that they will turn things around and say, ‘No, I don’t want my child to feel what I felt as a child. I want a different path.” In the work we do, we are constantly trying to turn these risk factors into protective factors, and helping parents better understand the impact of their behaviors is a big part of that.
Davy – I didn’t hear about ACEs until this past year. Going through the list, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is why I act and respond to my own children the way I do.’ It made me more mindful of the possible long-term effects of some of the things I’d been doing. I think twice now before responding when I may be tired or frustrated, or when I come home from a day at work, I’m more thoughtful and intentional when responding to my kids. I think more about how my responses will be interpreted, and how putting them off or being preoccupied with “winding down” could be seen as rejection. I’ve changed my approach so that I think more about how they will process my actions.
Alison – The Rappahannock Area Community Services Board offers the ACE Interface “Understanding ACEs and Building Resilient Communities” training. It provides valuable knowledge on the impact of ACEs and trauma not only on brain development but also on physical and mental health. Our brain develops in stages as we age. Neglect and abuse at any stage can affect how we grow, how we learn, and how we interact with the world around us. The next community ACE Interface training is June 12. More information is available at www.rappahannockareacsb.org
Do your programs interact with Child Protective Services, and can you shed light on the role CPS plays in preventing abuse and neglect in our community?
Davy – The stigma is that CPS is going to take your children. However, CPS is there to help families. We work closely with CPS when we are asked to support a family before it becomes an official intake for them. We are all prevention programs that are there to help support and strengthen nurturing families that ultimately don’t need involvement with CPS.
What can we do if we see a parent struggling?
Alison – Reaching out to be that friend, that neighbor, that family member who cares is huge. That’s true both for the parent and the child. One of the greatest protective factors for children who are experiencing ACEs is to have a connection to one caring adult in their life. Studies have shown that if you have two children who have experienced the same thing in the same household, but they have different external relationships with adults, the one who has a connected relationship with another adult can fare better and is more resilient to all they have experienced than that child who doesn’t have a connection to a caring adult. That could be a teacher, a coach, a neighbor, an aunt, an uncle, a cousin, or the bus driver. It doesn’t matter who it is, as long as there is a consistent connection.
How can we support each other better as parents in our community?
Alison – Empathy can go a long way. It’s important for us to ask not, “What’s wrong with you?” but, “What happened to you? Tell me your story.” You see the child acting out in the grocery line and you think, “Oh that is a terrible parent.” Well, you don’t know what is going on in their lives. Maybe going to the store is a challenge and this is the first time they tried new strategies. Having empathy is something we as a community can do to help our children and parents.