William & Mary

W&M professors lead the crusade to prevent child abuse and neglect in Virginia

{{youtube:medium:right|mRtqOLIwM-0, Professor Galano on how child abuse prevention has improved}}

Across the Commonwealth, thousands of tiny blue pinwheels staked in the ground flutter in the springtime breeze. Much more than garden ornaments, the decorations symbolize a dark past and a hopeful future for children in Virginia. 

William & Mary Psychology Professor Emeritus Joseph Galano and Adjunct Professor of Psychology Lee Huntington know the significance of the pinwheels perhaps better than anyone.  As lead advocates for Prevent Child Abuse, which declared the pinwheel its national symbol in 2008, they’ve been at the forefront of the crusade to raise awareness and ultimately end abuse and neglect in the Commonwealth for more than three decades — before prevention programs were really even a thing.

“In terms of abuse, it used to be that you would intervene early if you found that a child had been abused or neglected by their parents,” said Huntington. “That’s how our Child Protective Services was initially set up. But preventionists for years said rather than picking up the bodies downstream, let’s go upstream to where they’re getting thrown into the river and try to intervene at that point and keep the problem from developing in the first place.” 

It turns out, science backs that approach, too. According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children who are exposed to adverse experiences, including abuse, neglect or parental dysfunction at all in childhood are far more likely to develop long-term health and behavioral problems as adults — and the numbers are staggering.

“They have a 450-percent increase in depression, a 1,000-percent increase in alcoholism and substance abuse,” said Galano. “In fact, most major illnesses in our country that are breaking the bank and have been very unresponsive to treatment are not the result of overeating or some cardiovascular risk. These are long-term impacts of adverse childhood experiences that disrupt the neurological systems.” 

{{youtube:medium:right|4TObd42rASA, Prevention versus intervention in abuse and neglect}}

It’s this train of thought that prompted the founding of one of the most successful prevention programs in the country, Healthy Families America, which provides hands-on, in-home assistance to new parents and parents-to-be. Founded in 1992 by preventionists in Hawaii, the model has spread nationwide to reach 624 communities in 35 states. 

Virginia was among the first states to adopt Healthy Families, thanks to Galano’s and Huntington’s efforts to spearhead the program in the city of Hampton more than 23 years ago. Today, there are 33 state-supported programs across the Commonwealth serving almost 100 communities. Galano and Huntington serve as lead evaluators for all of the Healthy Families Virginia programs.

“Knowledge alone doesn’t produce change,” said Galano. “Healthy Families provides that connection to a trusted person and a support network. We find that, with support, we get many more lasting behaviors.”

As a Healthy Families beneficiary, support often begins at the prenatal stage and extends up until the child is five years old. Family development specialists work with new mothers and fathers on everything from scheduling immunization and screening for developmental delays to mastering basic parenting skills. 

“Oftentimes new parents don’t know things about bathing their children or what kind of formula to give for how long,” said Huntington. “So the specialist will provide them with practical knowledge about raising a child. On the other hand, a big portion of the model for Healthy Families is identifying potential issues, such as depression, early on and connecting the family to resources already in the community for support beyond the program.” 

{{youtube:medium:right|M8Xy0ujL8ko, How abuse as a child affects an adult}}

Huntington estimates that Healthy Families Virginia serves around 3,000 to 3,500 families each year with home visiting services. However, its reach extends far beyond that. With the help of local hospitals and OB-GYN clinics, assessment workers try to screen every mom-to-be in a designated Healthy Families community to evaluate potential risk factors. 

“We consider the assessment process to determine eligibility for the program a service in itself,” said Huntington. “Even families who don’t qualify for home visiting will still be connected to services they need within the community. So the reach of the assessment is on the order of around 8,000 families per year.”

With new legislation passed in the Commonwealth, that number can only climb. Governor Terry McAuliffe recently approved a plan to double the budget for the next five years for Healthy Families Virginia, in the hopes of increasing the size of home visiting and eventually expanding the program to serve more communities, and more families, across Virginia.

“It’s a very exciting and hopeful future for Virginia,” said Galano. “I think we need to live in a society where everybody, whether they have children or not, supports new families and programs like Healthy Families Virginia that are working to put an end to child abuse and neglect.”