Virginia Tech experts lend helping hands to children in need

When children come to the attention of state or county social workers, something is usually wrong. The child may be abused or neglected. A parent may be missing. Disabilities may be inhibiting school performance. In Fairfax County, Va., a Virginia Tech team helps right those wrongs.

"The program began in 1995 as collaboration among a set of diverse players: Virginia Tech researchers and faculty, the private sector, and local government. The teamwork proved to be a winning recipe," said Melony Price-Rhodes, senior program director at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance and the team’s principal investigator.

Cooperating with Fairfax County's Department of Family Services, the Virginia Tech team scours the landscape for revenues that can pay for vital services the children and their families need. The money helps underwrite a child's stay in foster care so less taxpayer money is used.

Historically, the program has contributed millions of dollars to Fairfax County. "But it's about much more than money," Price-Rhodes said. Sometimes a little detective work is all it takes to find a missing parent who then becomes a vital part of the child's life.

For instance, court specialist Claudia Malenich followed a trail of men identified as potential fathers. The child had been born to an addict. The state had already terminated her rights to two older children. Finding a loving, responsible second parent for the child was a longshot, but Malenich took up the quest. On paternity test No. 3, she struck pay dirt.

   

Claudia Malenich, at left, and Melony Price-Rhodes Claudia Malenich, at left, and Melony Price-Rhodes are part of the seven-member team. Photo courtesy of Hal Gibson.

Malenich said this a "miracle case" because the mom successfully completed rehab and with the emergence of the father "the child has a loving, two-parent home."

In cases like these, the seven-member team takes care of paperwork, allowing Fairfax County's social workers to concentrate on the people work.

The concept of embedded teams may be associated with the military. But Virginia Tech's embedded team shows that the concept can be successfully applied in the civilian world.

So why doesn't every county in Virginia hire such a team? Upfront costs can be high, Price-Rhodes said. But return on the county's investment is positive, even in a fiscally challenging environment.

"Though the program has been tried in California and Hawaii, and in early stages in South Carolina, to my knowledge, Virginia Tech is the only one who is doing it successfully. It's a wonderful project, accessing needed resources for eligible children while helping the county provide vitally needed services. Everyone wins,” Price-Rhodes said.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Andrea Brunais at 540-231-4691.

About the institute

The Institute for Policy and Governance blends theory with practice by providing research, capacity building, technical outreach, and community-based inquiry concentrated around these policy areas:

  • Child and Family Social Welfare Policy Group
  • Governance and Civil Society Group
  • Public and Community Health Group
  • Public Policy Data Group

Video: Community Voices series

The Institute for Policy and Governance co-sponsors the Community Voices series in Blacksburg, Va. Hear a former foster child talk about his experiences growing up in foster care in this video.

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