Supporting Children’s Most Vital Supporters

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Parenting can be tough. It is the most challenging, and at the same time, the most rewarding work a person can ever do. Children thrive when they have supportive, nurturing parents. Sometimes ordinary parents are unable to cope with life situations such as illness, money problems, alcohol, or drug abuse. Many parents have little or no knowledge of how children develop or perhaps they are raising their children alone without a support system.  For everyone, there is help available.

Ana is a mother with two children, the oldest of whom is five. She was in need of help and she was referred to the Stop Child Abuse Now (SCAN) Northern Virginia Parent Education Program. Ana took a parenting class and she is now in a parent support group.

When I went to the first meeting I was feeling horrible about my parenting,” she said. “I had been referred to the support group at the recommendation of a friend and I wanted to learn how to be a better parent. Ana took an eight-week program in February and March followed by the support group. I learned how to help my children develop a healthy balance and I notice that I am more resourceful, she said. I catch them by surprise using a nice creative tool from the tool box. I wake up every morning believing there is hope.

There are many parents like Ana who just need a support system to become better parents, however, there are many caregivers and parents who cross the line and abuse their children. According to the Department of Health and Human Services there are nearly 3 million reports of child abuse made annually in the United States. In the City of Alexandria, from July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2006 there were 545 family assessments with 92 founded cases of child abuse.

Dave Cleary was in the Minnesota State Legislature when he decided to become an advocate for children. He believed that children who were brought up in a healthy environment would in turn be better citizens and better parents. In 1988, Cleary started Stop Child Abuse Now (SCAN) Northern Virginia in the basement of his home. We wanted to go after the causes of child abuse and not just treat the symptoms, said Cleary. We have helped something like 5,000 children in our 20 years. Cleary stated that as a nation the cost of child abuse is more than $100 billion per year.

SCAN is a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote the well-being of children, improve parent-child relations and prevent child abuse and neglect. Additionally, SCAN is committed to educating parents, the community and serving as advocates for children in the community, the legislature and the courts.

One of the signature programs for SCAN is the Alexandria Court Appointed Special Advocate Program (CASA). It began in 1988 and was strongly supported by Judge Stephen Rideout with his appointment to the bench in 1989. He was a constant supporter of the program during his tenure, 1989-1994, as Alexandrias Chief Judge for the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. Judge Rideout said that difficult cases had better outcomes for children when CASA volunteers were involved. Alexandria CASAs are always appointed to the most difficult cases that we see, said Rideout.

Sabrina Black, who works for the Federal Government as a Management Analyst, is a CASA volunteer. Our focus is on the child and to protect that child in the home so that there is a positive and safe environment. She said that the CASA volunteer usually has one case at a time so they are often the most constant and persistent person in that childs life. Sometimes they meet with the child three times a week for a minimum of six months. The shortest case she has worked on was for eighteen months. She continues to volunteer because, These children have such unconditional love in their eyes. They love their parents regardless and they love and accept me. When you show them any kind of care they love you back and their little hands reach up and hold yours. Black also said that the parents are not happy initially for the CASA volunteers participation and the environment can stay uncomfortable. Sometimes parents then realize that CASA is doing the right thing and that we are protecting the child. It is rewar
ding and I get so much back, she said.

Ann Caulkins, a case supervisor for SCAN agrees with Black on the satisfaction a CASA volunteer has by helping these young lives. She is a recipient of the Cleary award and personally has logged more that 500 volunteer hours to the program, in addition to her staff role.

I first learned about the CASA program from a sweet little five-year old girl who was in our care for a couple of weeks. That child had a CASA volunteer assigned to her and the woman came to our home to visit the little girl and I learned about CASAs advocacy for her.

There is a training program for anyone interested in being a CASA volunteer. It wasnt long before Caulkins went through the training and became a CASA volunteer herself. Caulkins believes that that the strength/benefit of a volunteer is that they focus on one family at a time. CASAs meet with relevant individuals involved in the childs life and this information is put into a report for the judge and of course shared with the social worker and the Guardian ad Litem for the child. This information may possibly make a difference in decisions made about that family.

Caulkins added, Certainly we do not have all the answers to end abuse or neglect of children, but at least I feel that we are trying to help wading into those murky waters alongside hurting children and families in an effort to support and encourage-and maybe that child or parent will one day feel that they have better options open to them.

Diane Charles, Executive Director of SCAN for the last 10 years, along with her staff of 11, has kept the focus on the core mission of the organization. SCANs programs include; Parent Education, Community Appointed Special Advocate Program (CASA), Public Education, Success by 6 Program and a Parent Connection Resource Guide. Six years ago, SCAN initiated the Allies in Prevention Coalition. Along with other regional organizations the coalition works together to share best practices, combine resources and collaborate efforts on effective educational messages about positive parenting and child abuse prevention. We are not sitting in the office coming up with ideas but we are connecting with other organizations in a complimentary way. It helps us to understand the real issues and prepare joint messages, Charles said.

SCAN is part of the Center for Alexandrias Children, started in 2007, which is focused on agencies and organizations working together toward the elimination of child abuse in the community. Right in line with the SCAN mission and based on the Childrens Advocacy Model, the programs goal is to minimize the trauma to victims of abuse by using a coordinated approach to services; to help children and families heal by providing services in a safe and child-friendly environment; to work to prevent child abuse by providing prevention programs and parenting classes and to create real systemic change in the way cases are processed and handled. City agencies involved are the Alexandria Police Department, Alexandria Sheriffs office, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse, and the Office of the Commonwealths Attorney. Community organizations are the Alexandria Capital Development Foundation, Alexandria Community Trust, City of Alexandria Office on Women, the Commonwealth of Virginia and Northern Virginia Family Services.

On November 15, the 20th anniversary of SCAN will be celebrated at the 6th Annual Toast to Hope at the Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria. For more information on the event or SCAN please go to www.scanva.org or call 703-820-9001.

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