The Reality of Family Separation: Children, Trauma, and What We Do Next

As a leader in the prevention of child abuse and neglect in Northern Virginia, SCAN is dedicated to educating the community about the scope, nature, and consequences of child abuse and neglect. The separation of immigrant parents from their children after they have crossed the U.S. border “is a form of child abuse,” said Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. SCAN is deeply concerned about the traumatic experiences immigrant children and their families are enduring as a result of this separation and the lasting effects this will have on these children’s health and development.

Trauma occurs when a person is overwhelmed by events or circumstances and responds with intense fear, horror, and helplessness. Potentially traumatic events can include separation from a loved one, surviving a war zone or refugee experience, enduring abuse and neglect, exposure to violence, or the effects of poverty. Children’s exposure to traumatic events and prolonged stress due to trauma can damage the developing brain of a child and lead to negative health outcomes in adulthood such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. Traumatic experiences can also lead to difficulty learning, impaired memory, poor attachments, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, depression, and an inability to control physical response to stress.

While the potential harmful effects of trauma are serious and alarming, children can heal if they have safe, stable and nurturing support. Parents, family and supportive adults can help children heal by building their resiliency, or their ability to “bounce back” after negative experiences. Some ways to build resiliency in children include:

  1. Create a safe environment that meets children’s basic needs. This includes safe housing, nutritious food, appropriate clothing, access to good health care and education.
  2. Establish and maintain consistent routines to help children feel safe.
  3. Help children identify their feelings and manage emotions. Maintain open communication where fears and worries can be discussed openly.
  4. Build supportive social connections with friends, family, neighbors, or faith groups.
  5. Care for yourself. Parents and caregivers should model self-care and recognize and seek help to manage their own traumatic experiences.

Calls to Action—2 ways you can help immigrant children and families:

  • Volunteer with or donate to organizations directly serving the families involved in this crisis, such as the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), the largest immigration nonprofit in Texas that provides free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrants (; the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which advocates for many of the separated and unaccompanied children (; or Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, which provides legal representation to low-income immigrants and families seeking reunification (
  • Educate yourself and your community on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Trauma using tools from SCAN’s Parent Resource Center.


What Does it Mean to Be a Trauma Informed Organization?

Have you explored our trauma informed care resources for parents? You’ve heard us talk about this topic from a direct child services perspective (see our blog post here), as well as an advocacy perspective (such as this blog we re-posted from Voices for Virginia’s Children) as it relates to legislation. But how do we change whole organizations to better serve individuals who have experienced trauma?

We’ve developed a helpful new resource that can get you started. Trauma informed organizations make a commitment to understand trauma, how to respond to trauma, and how it affects those they work with. Being trauma informed is an organizational cultural change. We hope you’ll download our Trauma Informed Organizations fact sheet, and let us know how your organization is making changes in 2018. We also recommend you learn more at:

• “Changing the Lens” by Voices for Virginia’s Children
• This report on Trauma Informed Care in Human Services from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
• The National Council for Behavioral Health, including the recent 60 Minutes’ segment with Oprah Winfrey:

It’s Crossover Time: Trauma, Foster Care and other Legislative Updates

It’s “crossover” week in the General Assembly — a time of transition when the Senate and House of Delegates exchange bills for review in the opposite house. Voices for Virginia’s Children has shared a few great updates, and we’re passing them along to our readers:

Photo Credit:

• Trauma-Informed Care Action Alert

This year Voices’ legislative agenda targets investments in policies that are trauma-informed, as detailed in our blog. Please write to members of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees today to support investments in health, human services, and education that take a trauma-informed approach!

• Foster Care and Adoption 

Read our blog to track the progress of bills and budget amendments dealing with the creation of the Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program (KinGAP), adoptions by close relatives, and adoptions by foster parents. We will update our blog again later today after the House Appropriations Subcommittee votes on HB 1333 regarding creation of the KinGAP. 
• School-to-Prison Pipeline
Read our blog for updates on amendments to bills related to suspension of pre-K to third-grade students and long-term supsension of K-12 students. Our blog also tracks progress on other bills related to student discipline issues and youth incarceration. 
Have you called your legislator yet this year? (Find them here.) Want to track a specific bill? (Find it here.)

In Session: Advocating for Children with an Understanding of Resilience and Trauma

The General Assembly is now in session, and we’ll be closely following the legislative issues affecting children and families in Virginia. For a helpful list of strategies to best advocate for children, explore our recent Advocacy Day recap. Today we’re also sharing this excellent post from Voices for Virginia’s Children; their Northern Virginia consultant Mary Beth Testa offers excellent insight and inspiration for legislators to work this year with a focus on building resilience and understanding the impact of trauma on children and families:

Recommendations to the 2018 General Assembly
(Reposted from the Voices for Virginia’s Children blog.)

Written by Mary Beth Testa, Voices’ Northern Virginia consultant

Research shows that chronic, severe stressors in childhood can cause toxic, traumatic biological responses to the developing brain, often with long-term consequences for health and wellness. Yet this research also tells us that responsive relationships with caregivers and strong community supports can buffer the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), allowing children to develop to their potential.

ACEs are potentially traumatic events that can have negative, lasting effects on health and well-being. These experiences range from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, to parental divorce or the incarceration of a parent or guardian. A growing body of research, based on the ground-breaking 1998 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente study, has sought to quantify the prevalence of ACEs and illuminate their connection with negative behavioral and health outcomes, such as obesity, depression, and other chronic health conditions later in life.

ACEs do not have to dictate the future of the child. Children can thrive despite trauma in their lives.

A child’s first five years of life are the most critical period for brain development. Despite trauma, children are resilient and can thrive if the right supports are in place in their family and their community.

We have reached a pivotal moment to build off the momentum of local work and point to a new direction of trauma-informed policy at the state level. In the months ahead, Voices will continue to incorporate more trauma-informed policy into our advocacy.

Voices for Virginia’s Children offers these recommendations to the General Assembly in 2018:

Promote trauma-informed best practices

  • Establish an interagency working group to evaluate the commonwealth’s policies and practices that address ACEs and promote resiliency. This working group should develop a state framework to implement evidence-based trauma-informed policy and practice and use it to help identify innovations, interventions, and resources to support resilient children and communities.
  • Create state-funded grants for local organizations that promote innovative trauma-informed care.

Continue supporting the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet

  • Maintain funding and staff support for the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet to ensure its continuance in the Northam administration. Established by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Children’s Cabinet is a cross-secretariat, multi-agency collaborative dedicated to developing and implementing a comprehensive policy agenda to promote the well-being of the commonwealth’s children from birth to age 21.

Please advocate with us to promote resilience and prevent trauma.

Download our fact sheet, which includes these recommendations and data we can use along with stories and experiences to highlight the urgency of action.

To find out more about opportunities to promote resilience and address childhood trauma, sign up for legislative updates from Voices for Virginia’s Children.

(Link to the original post on Voices for Virginia’s Children‘s site here.)

Child Abuse in Northern Virginia: The Numbers

As we reflect on the impact of our programs in 2017, it’s an important time for us to gather new data about children and families in our communities. One of our favorite resources for statistics is Voices for Virginia’s Children, especially their links to the Kids Count Data Center, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We also refer to the Virginia Department of Social Services’ online information system here.

The newest numbers on child abuse in Northern Virginia report that more than 6,500 children were involved in valid cases of child abuse or neglect last year. We are committed to these children, and will continue to work in 2018 on both advocacy and prevention — and we hope you will too. (Perhaps 2018 is the year you join our Allies in Prevention Coalition!)

Please download our new Child Abuse in Northern Virginia fact sheet and refer to it in the coming year as we work together to protect children and prevent child abuse in 2018.


6 Things to do TODAY to Speak Up for Children: Highlights from SCAN’s 6th Annual Advocacy Training

With the 2018 General Assembly Session just a month away, it’s a critical time for advocates to start speaking up for children and families in Northern Virginia. We recently hosted our 6th Annual “Speak Up for Children” Advocacy Day to help community members prepare. With generous support from Verizon, we welcomed Prevent Child Abuse Virginia and Voices for Virginia’s Children to help guide a day-long discussion of advocacy tactics, legislative updates and policy priorities for the year ahead.

PCAV’s Johanna Schuchert kicked off the training with an “Advocacy 101” segment – covering how the legislative process works and how to make sure your voice is heard during the process.

1. Download these helpful “Educating Your Legislators” Tips from PCAV.

It was especially helpful to hear directly from legislators and staff – including Del. David Bulova, Delegate Mark Levine’s Chief of Staff Steven Marku, and Senator Jennifer Wexton – that they desperately want to hear from human service providers who are familiar with and passionate about current issues, including sexual misconduct in schools, substance-exposed infants and Erin’s Law.

“It’s so important for you to react to the issues that matter to you,” noted Del. Bulova. “Legislators are busy. We rely on you to inform us and work with us to make the best decisions.”

2. Find your legislator here.

Part of advocacy is being aware of the scope of problems in the community. Voices’ Mary Beth Testa offered an excellent “State of the Child” presentation. She provided links to statistics—including the fact that 19% of children in Virginia have experienced 2+ traumatic experiences—that can also be found here.

3. Take Mary Beth’s action steps this month:
a. Call your Senators about reauthorizing #CHIP.
b. Sign the statement supporting Fairfax County’s effort to be a trauma-informed community.
c. Join Voices for a call on 12/19 to review governor’s budget proposal (more info below.)

NBC4 investigative reporter Scott MacFarlane and producer Rick Yarborough also joined the discussion to share their work covering sexual misconduct in local schools, with excellent insight from expert Dr. Charol Shakeshaft from Virginia Commonwealth University.

4. Watch Scott’s NBC4 investigative report here.

“The most important thing we can do to prevent child sexual abuse in schools is training,” noted Dr. Shakeshaft, “particularly boundary training to let adults know what it means to cross a line with a student, how it happens, and how to see it.”

5. Consider having SCAN provide child sexual abuse prevention training through our partnership with Darkness to Light. Learn more here.

Advocacy Day ended with a focus on substance exposed infants and legislative issues related to the crisis. Thanks to panel members from Inova Hospital, Fairfax County DFS, Loudoun MHSADS and the Fairfax Falls Church CSB, attendees (and legislators) left with both sobering statistics and renewed energy to take action on the issue.

“We are vastly underestimating the problem – and the impact – of substance exposed infants. It’s not just about substances passed on during pregnancy—it’s a question of ACEs, trauma and continued effects after bringing baby home.”

6. Learn more about the Voices Legislative Agenda – including substance exposed infants and trauma – in their webinar on Tuesday, December 19th at 1:00 PM. Simply bookmark THIS LINK and join the discussion next week!



On November 16th, a Chance to Hone Your Advocacy Skills

For individuals committed to the well-being of Northern Virginia’s children and families, SCAN’s 6th Annual “Speak Up for Children” Advocacy Training event — made possible by Verizon — is a unique opportunity to learn more about a legislative process that impacts both how children and families receive care, as well as the institutions that deliver said care. In reviewing the legislative process and engaging with elected officials, Advocacy Day participants develop a better understanding of how to be an effective advocate for vulnerable children and families.

While Northern Virginia families face a variety of challenges, this year’s Advocacy Day highlights two key issues: Virginia’s need to reduce the incidence of substance exposed infants and closing the teacher licensing loophole in relation to child sexual abuse. Special guests will include:

• Delegate David Bulova
• Delegate Mark Levine
• Delegate Kenneth Plum
• NBC4 Investigative Reporter Scott McFarlane
• Charol Shakeshaft, Ph.D., Virginia Commonwealth University
Prevent Child Abuse Virginia‘s Johanna Schuchert
Voices for Virginia’s Children

By joining SCAN at Advocacy Day 2017, participants will be empowered to contribute to the collaborative message and region-wide efforts to support our community’s most vulnerable families and children.Register here. 
(Be sure to follow the event on social media on 11/16 using #speakupforchildren!)

4 Questions to Ask About Virginia’s Kids (with Answers!)

When we work directly with children and families on a daily basis, it can be helpful to take a step back and look at the “big picture” of the greater community. Voices for Virginia’s Children is an excellent source of data, trends and advocacy alerts related to child welfare in the commonwealth. Their clickable maps make it easy to look specifically at the five jurisdictions we serve in Northern Virginia (Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William) as well as compare with other regions. They recently asked (and answered) four important questions:


Colton Powell & Beth Nolan’s recent blog post (here) invites child welfare advocates and professionals to explore their new and improved interactive data page:

Get the answer to these questions and more in this new series of interactive stories, covering child demographics, economic well-being, education, and health. Each story contains maps, graphs, and tables that you can manipulate and interact with.

We hope you find these stories and its data useful in seeing how kids are faring in your locality and across the Commonwealth!

For additional information on the stories, its data, or to have a personalized presentation for your region or organization, please contact KIDS COUNT Director, Beth Nolan at

We Support the Girls: A chance to educate and engage

On February 11th, I had the privilege of being on a panel for a special community event put on by We Support the Girls, a local organization that “recognizes the need to support child victims of sexual abuse, beginning with the initial reporting, continuing through the legal process, and ultimately sustaining as victims and their families continue to heal.”


The main goal of the event was to increase community involvement in the prevention of child sexual abuse by encouraging community members to:

  • Become engaged
  • Learn how to be a part of stopping child sexual abuse in Virginia
  • Participate in a movement to protect all girls and boys in our state from child sexual abuse
  • Get energized to advocate for the passage/adoption of Erin’s Law (allowing for age appropriate education in the schools)
  • Find out what as members of the community can be done to support victims and empower survivors of sexual abuse

 The panel was moderated by Peggy Fox, WUSA News Channel 9 and included remarks from Congressman Don Beyer and Arlington County Board Member Katie Cristol.  Joining me on the panel was Dr. Lyndon Haviland MPH, Darkness to Light, Jennifer Alvaro Mental Health Therapist, Arlington County Child & Family Services, Caitlyn Knittig Survivor/Advocate, and Angela Rose founder of PAVE.

Those attending the event walked away engaged and ready to advocate for child sexual abuse awareness for all of Northern Virginia.  As a direct result of my participation on the panel, I have two Stewards of Children trainings scheduled in Falls Church and have several adults interested in becoming Darkness to Light authorized facilitators at a training to be held in June at SCAN.  Others who attended the event were actively engaged in learning how to get Erin’s Law passed in Virginia.  As a panelist, I was able to talk about what barriers kept Erin’s Law from being passed this year in the General Assembly and also able to provide thoughts and insight on what we need to do in order to get it passed next year.

– Tracy Leonard, Public Education Manager,

Support for Immigrant Parents

There have been countless (and often conflicting) news stories in recent weeks about immigration in the United States. In our networks, the discussion–for years–has simply focused on how we can best care for and support these families. What is it like to be an immigrant and a parent? What are the unique fears, challenges, and needs faced by these families?


Please consider sharing our resources with the professionals and parents in your own networks:

We also highly recommend browsing our new Parent Connection Resource Guide for parenting classes and support groups for parents facing immigration and reunification.

What resources do you depend on in your work with immigrant families?