It’s National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Del. Wendy Gooditis (D-10) put the spotlight on the difficult topic during a policy roundtable Tuesday night at the Leesburg Town Hall.
Eleven child abuse experts from the county, state and other organizations participated in the forum, which focused on child abuse prevention and responses and aimed to give lawmakers recommendations to better protect children, along with state Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-10), Del. Karrie Delaney (D-67) and Del. Kathleen Murphy (D-34) also participated in the conversation.
Better training and more access to affordable childcare services were two issues raised frequently during the discussion.
Buta Biberaj, a Leesburg attorney who is running for commonwealth’s attorney, pointed out that many cases of sexual abuse involve individuals that children trust, and not necessarily strangers.
John Walker, the Loudoun County Public School System’s director of Student Support Services, said that kids are more vulnerable to sexual abuse today because of their access to social media. He said it was important for school personnel to connect with parents and help to make kids comfortable when reporting sexual abuse.
Caitlin Smith, of Loudoun County Child Protective Services, said that affordable childcare would give working parents who can’t otherwise afford it a place to take their kids during their workdays, rather than leaving them home alone or dropping them off with caretakers they aren’t entirely comfortable.
“If [parents] had access to this resource, we could prevent all of this,” she said.
Allyson Halverson, the public education manager for SCAN of Northern Virginia, said that because of high childcare costs, many parents have to choose between going to work to make money to support their families and taking lesser-paying jobs to stay at home more often. “That’s real life,” she said.
Halverson also said that while childcare can be affordable, it’s not always practical, since many parents have jobs with sporadic hours and need childcare in the mornings, evenings and on the weekends.
Lisa Specter-Dunaway, the CEO of Families Forward Virginia, suggested that the county implement her nonprofit’s Hugs and Kisses Program, which travels to elementary schools across the commonwealth to teach kids how to keep safe from, or report, sexual abuse and to teach educators how to responsibly and respectfully respond to children when they report abuse.
Sheriff’s Office Maj. Robert Miller, the commander of the Criminal Investigation Division, said that Specter-Dunaway’s suggestion is something that Loudoun could entertain, since officers already spend a “significant amount of time” with children at schools talking about similar topics.
“We’re doing the best we can do with all the time we can spare to … make connections with students,” he said. “There [are] partnerships there.”
Miller said the Sheriff’s Office also talks with parents about bullying.
Gooditis told the roundtable participants that she would rely on them for help when crafting bills aimed to protect children.
“I’m counting on your backgrounds and your knowledge and your expertise to help us with the legislation,” she said. “We need you to do that.”
Sheriff Mike Chapman, Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk and Leesburg Town Councilman Neil Steinberg were also present at the roundtable.
Gooditis said her push for child abuse advocacy stems from the March 2017 death of her brother after he spent more than four decades living with the effects of being raped at the age of 11.
“I watched him suffer his entire life,” she said. “I have seen the effects [of childhood sexual abuse]. It’s really why I’m in the legislature.”
In addition to Tuesday’s roundtable, Gooditis in January announced a slate of four bills that aimed to combat child abuse. Three of those bills died in this year’s Virginia General Assembly session, while a fourth one that sought to make clergy of all religious denominations mandated reporters of child abuse was wrapped into a successful bill that Delaney introduced.