By Sonia Quiñonéz, Executive Director, SCAN of Northern Virginia
On the surface, Loudoun County is a picture of prosperity and good health. With a median household income of $115, 574—double the national median—it’s not surprising that Forbes Magazine declared Loudoun the nation’s wealthiest county in 2016.
Here’s what is surprising: One of every 25 school-age children in Loudoun County lives in poverty. Even more astonishing, during 2014-2015, Loudoun Child Protective Services (CPS) investigated 1,205 valid reports of child abuse involving 1,462 children. More than 1 in 5 of those reports involved a child exposed to domestic violence.
Clearly, the picture is more complicated than it appears on the surface.
That’s why SCAN of Northern Virginia convened a group of public, private, and non-profit organizations that serve children and families in Loudoun County to identify needs in the community and develop recommendations for meeting those needs.Specifically, we focused on how to address the upstream social factors, including child abuse, neglect, and early exposure to violence, that can have profound and lifelong impacts on the health and well-being of children into adulthood. The Northern Virginia Health Foundation supported our work.
A new report based on our collaboration, Resilient Children, Resilient Loudoun!, shows how much Loudoun County has changed in the first two decades of this millennium, and why we need to keep pace with this change. Since 2000, Loudoun’s population has doubled—and diversified. Loudoun is now made up of families who speak at least 109 languages; today, people born outside the United States account for nearly a quarter of the county’s population.
These are among the families who are most likely to be isolated from the community services and supports they need, but we identified others as well, including middle-income families; youth aging out of foster care; young people with intellectual or physical disabilities; and families who are unstably housed, lack transportation, or have low literacy levels.
Their needs are very real. Left unmet, they can manifest in serious ways. For example, 1,325 youth in Loudoun lacked a fixed, regular residence during the 2014-2015 school year. Local schools, child welfare services, and health care providers have seen dramatic increases in the needs of children for mental health services.
To build a framework for the work of our collaborative, we considered important findings from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente. This study found that traumatic events such as abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence experienced early in life can have destructive effects on children’s development, causing lasting damage to their learning, behavior, and health. The researchers concluded that ACEs are “the most important determinant of the health and well-being of our nation.”
That’s why we need to stop dealing with problems like gang activity, teen suicide, and opioid use only after they become crises. These problems don’t just appear out of nowhere; they develop in our communities, during the earliest years of children’s lives. We need to do the upstream work to prevent them so that children grow up healthy, strong, and equipped to cope with the challenges they will encounter in life.
In short, we must change our approach—look beneath the surface, let go of assumptions, and try to understand what’s happening in the lives of vulnerable children and families. In this first report from our collaboration, we offer the following recommendations:
- Increase community outreach to underserved and isolated families. Many highly committed service providers are working to support families and youth, but because of budget constraints, language and cultural barriers, and stigma-related fears, families who need their help often don’t even know that services and resources exist.
- Make supports and services more accessible to parents. As the first and primary caregivers for their children, parents are key to preparing young people for the world. But stress and anxiety are pervasive among families struggling to cover basic needs such as housing and childcare. Families need more behavioral supports to help them cope with daily stress and prevent more serious mental health problems.
- Improve and increase reporting of children in danger of abuse or neglect. Too many times, suspicions of child abuse and neglect go unreported, because people think they need proof or fear that CPS involvement will make the situation worse for the child. We need to educate people so that they feel comfortable making these reports and opening the door to supportive family services.
- Increase funding and training for human service providers. Despite dramatic growth in Loudoun County’s population, there has been no parallel increase in human services funding. Service providers in Loudoun cannot keep up with the needs of our growing population. Without sufficient investment in preventive and early intervention services, our community will pay an even greater cost later.
We hope that this report serves as a starting point for a new conversation on how better to meet the needs of families and children in Loudoun County. It’s time to go beneath the surface so that everyone in our community can thrive.