By Michael Schuster
Capital News Service
RICHMOND − The Virginia Commission on Youth gathered at the Capitol this month to discuss how to prevent the “fragmentation of families” by encouraging parents to stay together in raising their children in Richmond and across the commonwealth.
The commission met to revise a document called the “Collection of Evidence-Based Practices for Children and Adolescents,” which addresses mental health, parental training, social welfare services and other issues. Every two years, the panel updates the collection, which was first published in 2002.
The commission is focusing on family fragmentation – a concern raised by Richmond’s public health director, Dr. Donald Stern. He gave a presentation showing that almost two-thirds of the children born in the city are born to single mothers.
“A steadily rising number of children born to single mothers prompted the commission to strengthen programs based on family structure,” Stern said. “The purpose of the presentation is to talk about family structure as well as the health of families and communities.”
Of the 3,000 births in Richmond in 2011, about 64 percent were to unmarried women, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Statewide, more than 35 percent of the 103,000 births that year were “non-marital.” The proportion of births to single mothers in Virginia has more than doubled since the 1960s.
Bob Ruthazer, founder of the Certified Family Life Educator program in Richmond, noted the importance of the presence of a biological father in a child’s life.
“Family fragmentation has far-reaching costs on a community,” said Ruthazer, who also established First Things First, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening families in Richmond.
“Children in father-absent households are five to seven times more likely to live in poverty and to develop risky criminal behaviors from an early age. This is a statewide issue, not just a Richmond issue.”
Ruthazer encouraged the commission to support programs to connect fathers to their families.
Instead of just increasing financial aid to single mothers, Ruthazer recommended the use of advertising campaigns, legislative measures and community partnerships to reduce the number of non-marital births and foster more two-parent families.
First Things First does just that. It gives fathers an opportunity to learn about child rearing and youth development. The program teaches participants everything from changing a diaper to preparing for college.
Ruthazer urged the implementation of similar programs on a greater scale throughout Virginia.
“It’s absolutely necessary for fathers to be active in a child’s life. The organization is a way for individuals to bond with their children, while also learning how to be a parent figure,” he said.
Also at its April 2 meeting, the Commission on Youth discussed the mental health needs of juvenile offenders.
Based the commission’s research, more than 60 percent of males and 80 percent of females who were committed to the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice showed significant signs of mental disorders.
Amy Atkinson, the executive director of the Commission on Youth, said one of the goals in revising the “Collection of Evidence-based Practices” is to help at-risk youth in the juvenile justice system.
“It’s juvenile justice but also a study on mental health itself,” Atkinson said. “The study deals with providing mental health assessments for these kids within 24 hours of intake if there are signs of mental health issues.”
The commission will continue to work with family and children’s organizations over the next few months before finalizing its revisions to the collection.
On the Web
The website for the Virginia Commission on Youth is http://vcoy.virginia.gov. The site contains the current “Collection of Evidence-based Practices for Children and Adolescents with Mental Health Treatment Needs” as well as other reports and studies.