A Pound of Prevention: Leveraging Federal Law Change to put Families First in Virginia

Anndee Hochman

For Emily Griffey, policy director of Voices for Virginia’s Children, some small print in the bipartisan budget act passed by Congress last February was cause for celebration. 

The legislation, known as the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), was the first significant reform of child welfare financing in a generation. And unlike previous federal funding, which helped maintain the foster care system through subsidies for room, board and other services, the new law pays for prevention.

The funds, which come with a 50/50 match of state dollars, will provide reimbursement for up to twelve months of mental health services, substance use treatment and in-home parenting skills training—in short, the family-strengthening ballast that can keep children out of the foster care system in the first place.

“If we invest in prevention, if we make parents the strongest possible parents they can be, they can help buffer any stresses their kids do encounter, and give children the most solid foundation for any trauma they encounter in their lives,” Griffey says. “[The legislation] gives us some resources we don’t always get to unlock for parents.”

What’s more, the FFPSA notes that all services must be trauma-informed.

That was jubilant news for Griffey. When she first learned about ACEs and trauma-informed practice at a training three years ago, she realized that those concepts touched every aspect of her organization’s work. Voices for Virginia’s Children, founded in 1994, is a multi-issue child policy and advocacy group with a mission to “champion public policies that improve the lives of Virginia’s children.”

Griffey recalls returning from that training and telling Voices’ director, “Wow, this impacts all the things Voices has always been about: early childhood, mental health, foster care. It’s a way to look at doing our work through a different lens.”

Griffey also noticed that the research on ACEs and resilience had the power to energize a wide swath of people: parents and community leaders, social service practitioners and policy-makers. Trauma-informed care, she thought, could become part of the language of child advocacy everywhere from the local school district to the state legislature.

To further their push for policy change, the Voices team created the Campaign for a Trauma Informed Virginia, which officially launched this week with a logo and a website. Interviews with members of the 17 Trauma-Informed Community Networks (TICNs) around the state, as well as local partners in child welfare, adoption, early childhood education and mental health, shaped the campaign’s agenda: to make a systemic shift toward prevention while also addressing children’s and families’ immediate needs.

“We exist to provide an overview of what’s happening across state agencies,” Griffey says. “We exist to learn from local partners about how they have already been implementing trauma-informed practices or systems, how their community networks are successful, and to mobilize advocates around opportunities to shape state policy.”

Those efforts have already logged successes, even before the campaign’s official start. In the 2017 legislative session, Virginia lawmakers passed a resolution recognizing the work of the TICNs. “That was our first experience using the terminology ‘trauma-informed care’ with policy-makers, explaining what was going on at the local level and using that as a public education year,” Griffey explains.

In 2018, Voices worked with a legislative commission to shape and advocate for specific proposals—among them, the call for a state inter-agency work group, included in the state’s final budget, to define trauma-informed care in Virginia and determine best practices.

The Voices team is also working with the state’s governor, Ralph Northam, a former pediatric neurologist, to reboot his Children’s Cabinet with a focus on trauma-informed care.

The new federal dollars aimed at prevention—which would be used by the state’s providers of health and welfare services, not by Voices itself—could pay for residential substance abuse recovery centers that accommodate mothers along with their children, or dyadic mental health therapies that treat both generations at once.    It’s a significant amount of money—Virginia’s current annual allotment for IV-E (federal code for the funds for families at risk of entering the foster care system) is $210 million.



Griffey notes the challenges of creating and sustaining a multi-sector, statewide campaign: learning what initiatives are already taking place and how they’re working; developing a shared definition of “trauma-informed” and a common set of talking points for advocacy.

“Trauma is such a cross-cutting issue, in so many different fields. We wanted the campaign to cross foster care, education, mental health, and not be owned by any one particular initiative. But when you bring everyone into the room, everyone comes with their own priorities.”

Meantime—through a webinar Voices hosted about FFPSA, and through regular contact with Voices’ outreach coordinator, Chloe Edwards—Virginia’s Trauma-Informed Community Networks can learn more about how to use the funds for services that support parents as well as children. “It’s huge,” Griffey says. “Now we have this law that can push us closer to prevention. This will hopefully transform our welfare services for future generations.”


Additional Resources

Anndee Hochman is a journalist and author whose work appears regularly in The Philadelphia Inquirer, on the website for public radio station WHYY and in other print and online venues. She teaches poetry and creative non-fiction in schools, senior centers, detention facilities and at writers' conferences.

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