Tag Archive: state advocacy

  1. Bill and Budget Explainer: School-based Mental Health Services


    Virginia is poised to make significant progress in children’s mental health during the 2023 legislative session. Virginia ranked as 48th in Youth Mental Health access according to Mental Health America and recommendations were identified by JLARC in their report Pandemic Impact on K-12 Public Education. School-based mental health services are an integral component to address the youth mental health crisis as schools are often where children and youth form positive and trusting relationships with adults and peers to address their needs. However, we have seen too many incidents where schools are not fully equipped to address mental health needs of students. We also must look to the future where federal ESSER funds that have boosted school-based mental health responses are scheduled to end.

    Actions taken by the General Assembly in recent years to improve the ratio of counselors to students, create school-based mental health integration programs, seek the reversal of the “free care rule” to bill Medicaid for school-based services, integrate mental health into Standards of Learning and regional Recovery High Schools have created the positive momentum for further action this year. In addition, we have seen the expansion of federal grants included in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and recent guidance from the Centers on Medicaid and Medicare Administration to leverage Medicaid to pay for school-based services. Read more about Medicaid funding for school-based services here.

    Legislation Considered by Education Committees

    SB1043 (McPike) | HB2124 (Wilt) | HB2187 (Rasoul) – School mental health and counseling, definitions, licensure requirements – SUPPORT

    The Senate version of this legislation incorporates the two policy changes in the House bills to refine the roles of school counselors and to provide flexibility in staffing for school psychologists. To help improve coordination of services, the Senate version also includes a directive to the Department of Education (DOE) to work with Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) to develop a model Memorandum of Understanding for school-based partnerships with community-based mental health providers.

    SB1300 (Deeds) – Elementary & secondary school teachers, public: requirements, trauma-informed care training – SUPPORT

    This Senate bill outlines a training program for classroom teachers to receive training every three years developed by the DBHDS related to recognizing and addressing childhood trauma. This bill was conceived by a youth advocate, Elijah Lee. A budget amendment in the Senate budget provides funds to DBHDS to develop the training.

    SB1325 (McClellan) – Standards of Quality Specialized Support Positions – SUPPORT

    While there is shared interest in building on the Standards of Quality in the General Assembly, SB1325 that has passed the Senate and is being considered in the House specifically addresses the specialized student support positions (school social workers, school psychologists, school nurses, licensed behavior analysts, licensed assistant behavior analysts, and other licensed health and behavioral positions) intended to address student mental health and behavior supports. The budget conference committee negotiators should include $57 million in additional resources to improve the ratio of specialized student support personnel.

    SB818 (Spruill) – Programs of instruction on mental health education – SUPPORT

    This legislation adds additional specificity to the 2018 legislation that added mental health to the physical and health education Standards of Learning. This legislation outlines more specific curriculum guidelines to improve technical guidance to school divisions for age-appropriate sequential instruction and for local school boards to develop and implement policies related to mental health instruction.

    Budget Amendments Considered by House Appropriations and Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee

    Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services/Department of Education

    School Based Mental Health Integration Grants

    Last year, the General Assembly approved the first state-funded school-based mental health integration grants allowing DBHDS to offer grants to school divisions to expand school-based mental health services and community partnerships. Lawmakers should encourage DOE and DBHDS to collaborate on these efforts and should help define the roles for each agency. DOE should have oversight for school division implementation and DBHDS should provide expertise on  mental health services. In comparison, federal efforts for school-based mental health services are designed as a collaboration among Education and Health and Human Services. For example, both DBHDS and DOE have been awarded additional resources under the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to implement school-based mental health services.

    • Recommendation: Establish grant funds at both DBHDS and DOE to leverage the expertise of DOE and DBHDS to expand school-based mental health partnerships. The General Assembly should create two grant funds this year of up to $15 million at both the DOE and DBHDS with specialized focus areas that utilize existing partnerships and centers of excellence. The focus of DBHDS should be on clinical expertise for developmental practice, screening and assessment tools, integration with community violence and substance abuse prevention services, and evidence-informed practices for mental-health treatment services in school-based settings. The focus of DOE should be on expanding the use of school-based mental health professionals, providing technical assistance for collaboration among school-based professionals (VPSMH), and integration with the Virginia Tiered Systems of Support (VTSS).

    Department of Education

    Virginia Tiered Systems of Support (VTSS)

    The House and Senate budgets both include additional funding to expand the Virginia Tiered Systems of Support in conjunction with recommendations from the Behavioral Health Commission. Currently, 58 school divisions participate in VTSS and have reported declines in school discipline referrals and school suspension. The Senate budget includes $1.5 million and the House includes $500,000 to expand VTSS.

    School Safety and Security Funding

    The House and Senate budgets both include additional resources to improve school safety and security. However, in light of several incidents of violence on school campus, or within a school community, such as the incidents at Richneck Elementary, we recommend that the purpose of these funds be expanded to not only to make school environments secure, but to also help respond to schools and communities when violence occurs.

  2. Young Advocates Take on the General Assembly

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    On a rainy Tuesday during the first full week of Virginia’s 2023 General Assembly session, eighteen advocates took the Virginia legislature by storm. This group, ranging in age from 13 to 21, included members of Virginia’s Youth in Action, Pretty Purposed, and some returning advocates who had previous virtual advocacy experience.


    Youth advocates enjoyed a photo scavenger hunt that took them around Downtown Richmond. Photography by advocate Jonathan Jackson.

    On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the day before our advocacy day, our staff and youth advocates convened for a full day of training. After some ice breakers and team building, advocates prepared for media opportunities with Shannon Strategies. The Voices policy team worked with advocates in smaller groups to review bills being presented this session and to practice storytelling and public speaking strategies. After a photo scavenger hunt that took youth around downtown Richmond, the group closed the day by making Valentines for legislators and doing final preparations for advocacy day.

    Advocates and the Voices team had fun with Polaroid cameras, provided by The Spark Mill

    Fired up and ready to go! Our Voices team rallied youth advocates for an early morning start from the Marriott. Photography by Ty Begley, Z2B Photography

    Our Youth in Action Advocacy Day started with some grounding and rallying at the Marriott before heading over to the Pocahontas Building.

    Broken into five smaller groups, advocates held an impressive 22 legislative meetings, with several of them meeting their own representatives. Advocates shared personal stories about their experiences with school belonging, school based and crisis mental health, and gun violence.

    Zee and Nya Byrant met with their representative, Del. Hudson.

    Advocacy often includes sharing difficult personal stories, but advocates Kayla, Kennedy, and Ava were able to find joy and laughter throughout the day.

    Starting the day off on a high note with an 8:00 AM meeting with Del. Glass.

    The day culminated in a bipartisan press conference led by VAYA Advocates, Ishika Vij and Heciel Nieves-Bonilla, on the urgent mental health needs of young people. They were joined in support by Senator McClellan, Delegate Brewer, Senator Favola, Senator McPike, and Delegate Rasoul.

    “When I was facing a mental health crisis, my counselor was not properly equipped to connect me to resources, and instead, she waited until there was severe suicidal ideation to provide access to receive additional help. – Ishika Vij

    “Some of the major problems those seeking [mental health support] face is the inequity of service, whether based on poverty level, race, occupation, gender, language, immigration status, transportation capacity, or zip code. – Heciel Nieves-Bonilla

    Watch the full press conference here.

    As Ishika and Heciel proceeded with an interview about student mental health for ABC8 News, advocates met with Secretary of Health & Human Services, Secretary John Littel, to hear more about how the Youngkin administration is approaching regional mental health needs, followed by a brief Q & A.

    Finally, with a last rally through the Capitol, advocates were recognized and celebrated with an introduction in the House (by Delegate Adams) and in the Senate (by Senator Mason).

    The Voices team is inspired and in awe of the incredible and courageous work that our advocates have already done this legislative season and are excited for more to come from Virginia’s Youth in Action. We are thankful to all the supporters and hosts we met at the General Assembly and the Capitol. We are so grateful to Ty Begley of Z2B Photography for capturing our most precious moments throughout the day. We are also thankful for our advocates’ greatest cheerleaders and champions – the parents, guardians, educators, and helpers that have shaped them into the passionate and bright young minds they are today.

    Learn more about Virginia’s Youth in Action and sign up to receive policy news from the General Assembly every Friday in our Voices from the Capitol emails.

  3. 9-8-8 is Just One Step Towards a Comprehensive Crisis Services System

    This blog is the second post in a two-part series that takes a deeper look into Virginia’s efforts to integrate the 9-8-8 hotline with the behavioral health crisis services continuum. Read the first blog post in the series here.

    For years, communities have advocated for diverting mental and behavioral health calls away from law enforcement and for states to adopt a comprehensive crisis response system. Now, that dream is beginning to come to fruition. On July 16, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline transitioned to the three-digit number 9-8-8. While this transition was initiated by legislation at the federal level, states are responsible for the rollout and linkages to their crisis response systems when the caller’s needs cannot be resolved over the phone. Virginia has been working on a rollout behind the scenes to link the lifeline to crisis response services that are currently being designed and implemented by state agencies and stakeholders.

    The commonwealth’s plan for minimizing emergency room visits for mental health crises and providing an alternative to calling 9-1-1 is to link the crisis call centers with regionally focused resources by integrating mobile crisis response alongside the Marcus Alert protocols. However, at this moment, this is simply the goal and not the reality. The development and implementation of Virginia’s behavioral health crisis system has been a piecemeal approach, and is not yet fully prepared to deliver comprehensive, trauma-informed, and culturally responsive services to meet individuals’ mental health needs—specifically the needs of young people

    The Surgeon General sounded the alarm in December 2021 by issuing an advisory on the youth mental health crisis. Despite widespread awareness, young people’s mental and behavioral health needs are often an afterthought or part of “phase two” when developing programs and services. Current resources dedicated to young people’s behavioral health make up less than 10% of Virginia’s overall behavioral health agency budget. The lack of sufficient funding and resources further the disparities that historically marginalized communities face in accessing support and services.

    Due to the inconsistent mental health crisis services across regions, law enforcement is often the first point of “care” for mental health emergencies, especially for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and LGBTQIA+ youth. While most calls to 9-8-8 can be resolved during the call, some crises will require an in-person response based on a four-level call matrix.

    four level call matrix

    This new entry point for mental health support is supposed to be an alternative to law enforcement response, but a new law allows 89 of Virginia’s 133 localities with 40,000 or less residents to opt out of two protocols under the Marcus Alert System. This means that for those living in one of the 89 localities that are not required to implement all Marcus Alert protocols, an attempt to get in-person crisis support may still result in law enforcement, with or without Crisis Intervention Training, responding to your call. The criminalization of youth crises often results in further traumatization. This experience can intensify their crisis, compromise their treatment, and make them and their families less willing to call for help if another crisis occurs. Far too often children and families are met with a response that is not suited to meet their immediate or long-term needs.

    At a time when young people need support the most—while their worlds have been turned upside down by COVID-19—we must ensure there are providers and services in place to provide access to timely, culturally responsive services, and address social determinants of health to support children and families’ overall wellbeing. This requires investments from lawmakers and interagency collaboration.

    For 9-8-8 to be truly transformative, investments are needed now.

    While all these recommendations are not immediate and some are considerations for future policy, Voices for Virginia’s Children suggests the following key recommendations:

    • Mobile Crisis services need to be fully funded across all regions, with an emphasis on providing services in underserved and rural communities. Voices also suggests separate mobile crisis protocols designed specifically for youth, as the intervention points at which young people receive support may include schools, parental consent, developmental appropriateness, or specifically trained professionals;
    • Mobile Crisis and Community Care teams should include a peer specialist, interpreter, community advocate, and child-serving mental health professional;
    • More small-scale children’s Crisis Stabilization Units should be placed in communities across the state;
    • Establish an infrastructure for language access and a culturally diverse and appropriate workforce;
    • Mandatory trainings should include equity-centered concepts, including implicit bias training, trauma-informed care, child and adolescent development, and training specific to special populations (i.e., LGBTQIA+ youth and youth with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities);
    • Stakeholders involved in implementation should include those most impacted, such as youth with lived experience and communities of color;
    • Ensure that crisis response protocols and services are equipped to support systems-involved youth and their family members. Protocols should be designed to avoid future involvement in the child welfare system or juvenile justice system.

    Voices will continue to advocate for increased access and improved coordination of quality mental health services for all children in Virginia, regardless of where they live or at what point they seek mental health services. The future wellbeing of our state depends on how we support and invest in the next generation.

    To learn more about Virginia’s plan for crisis system transformation, visit these resources: Virginia’s Crisis System Transformation and Marcus Alert and STEP-VA.

  4. 2022 General Assembly Budget Passes with Bipartisan Progress for Kids

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    Click here to register for our upcoming Zoom webinar on June 14 as we discuss General Assembly results and what they mean for children and families in Virginia.

    After several months of negotiations and discussions among key decision makers, the General Assembly has reached an agreement on the budget. This year’s budget had notable investments in early education, foster care, and children’s mental health through bipartisan support. Since budgets are a reflection of priorities, we believe there are improvements Virginia can make to demonstrate its commitment to young people in the commonwealth.

    Notable investments in the final budget compromise include:

    • Expanding affordable, accessible early childhood education for young children around the state. The budget builds on Governor Northam’s vision to expand early childhood programming and provides funding for regional initiatives in Southwest Virginia and early intervention services for infants and toddlers with developmental delays.
    • State funding for school-based mental health integration projects linking mental health services into schools. The legislature approved $2.5 million for school-based mental health projects as well as the first regional recovery high school in Virginia.
    • New initiatives to address long-standing challenges in the child welfare system include replacing the outdated child welfare data tracking system and the iFoster web-based portal for youth, expanded regional collaboration for foster placements, and additional support for foster youth seeking associate’s degrees to participate in Great Expectations.
    • $1 million each year to boost the buying power of SNAP benefits to purchase fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and community retailers.

    We are proud to stand by the youth and young adults who advocated with us for these investments. And we will continue to speak up for policy changes designed to meet their needs.

    As one of our youth advocates said,

    “Mental health is the same thing as your physical health. It’s just as important, if not more important, so we really need to prioritize that and make it so that everybody has equal opportunities.”

    – (Aaliyana, 16 years old).

    While these initiatives will continue to create new opportunities for young children to grow and thrive, the foundation of their success is economic stability. The rate of children experiencing poverty has remained consistent for decades in Virginia with persistent racial disparities in the percentage of Black and Latino children living in poverty than their White peers. A solid foundation for child well-being rests on a solid financial foundation for their families.

    As a significant commitment to families, the General Assembly approved a partially refundable Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC):

    • Low-income working families who have a higher-than-average tax burden will see 15% of the value of their federal refund returned as a state tax credit.
    • In addition, this summer, taxpayers will receive one-time rebates of $250 for single families and $500 for married couples.

    The refundable EITC for families demonstrates that lawmakers can take necessary action to address long-standing challenges for families that were exacerbated by the pandemic. There will be more work to do to ensure that families receive economic support and stability that will address decades-long trends in child poverty and ever-increasing material hardship experienced by families across the state.

  5. Why Virginia Must Do Better for Black Mothers and Black Babies


    Dr. J. Marion Simms is known as the founder of modern surgical gynecology. However, in the 1840s, Simms spent years conducting experiments on enslaved women. Their names are only known as Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey. They were considered property and could not consent to the painful surgeries that were performed on them. In modern medicine today, numerous research studies name findings that shed light on explicitly bias beliefs that Black people have thicker skin and experience less pain. According to research by Sophie Trawalter, an associate professor of public policy and psychology at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported Black and Hispanic people receive worse care on 40% of the department’s care quality measures.

    Research consistently describes experiencing childbirth as a significant event of great psychological importance in a woman’s life. Childbirth infinitely shapes a woman’s perception of themselves and may positively impact their relationships with other family members. However, literature only parallels the positive experience with a “well-supported, normal birth.” While healthy births are normalized, it is not taken for granted in Black communities. We have heard the horror stories of women who were not listened to by their doctors, which later resulted in death.

    My niece, Genesis, was born on January 27, 2022. When I heard my sister was pregnant, I first asked, “do you have a doula? Do you have a midwife?” Many credible sources have reported a now all too familiar data point. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Black women in America are three times more likely to endure death related to pregnancy and childbirth than White women, regardless of their education or financial means. For women over 30, the risk is five times higher. The Virginia Department of Health reported the maternal mortality rate for Black mothers is more than double that of White mothers. A 2019 report by the Virginia Maternal Mortality Review Team noted 44 percent of pregnancy related deaths were due to a provider related factor, such as a failure to refer or seek consultation.

    The Fetal and Infant Mortality Review Team (FIMRT) Work Group Study reported Virginia’s rate of fetal death in 2019 was 7.6 fetal deaths per every 1,000 live births. While it was the lowest it has been since 2015, March of Dimes reported the infant mortality rate for Black infants was 9.5 per 1,000 live births in comparison to White infants at 4.8 per 1,000 live births in the state. (Diduk-Smith 8, 2021)

    In 2021, former Governor Ralph Northam released the Maternal Health Strategic Plan to eliminate racial disparities in maternal deaths by 2025. The plan appears to be no longer available on the server, yet stated, “Black women were more likely to report experiencing discrimination or harassment due to their race/ethnicity or insurance or Medicaid status.”

    People continue to name the conscious and unconscious biases that contribute to disproportionate outcomes for Black mothers and Black babies, some of which are so endemic it goes unnoticed. In 2021, an illustration of a Black fetus in a womb went viral.

    Illustration by Chidiebere Ibe, Forbes featured medical illustrator, medical student, and aspiring neurosurgeon

    Most fetuses are reported to be red in color or dark pink and gradually develop their skin tone; however, the medical demonstration was intended to represent patients who are not used to their skin tones in such images. The illustrator, Chidiebere Ibe, responded to the virality of his illustration in a statement on CNN, “the whole purpose was to keep talking about what I’m passionate about — equity in healthcare — and also to show the beauty of Black people…we don’t only need more representation like this — we need more people willing to create representation like this.”

    Black women are most impacted by maternal infant mortality disparities and it is also Black women leading the charge in dismantling them. In 2021, a Black woman, Delegate Lashrecse Aird led HJ 537, a resolution to recognize racism as a public health crisis in Virginia, making the state the first in the south to do so. The resolution included the recommendation to require training for elected officials, staff members, and state employees on how to recognize and combat implicit biases.

    This year, a Black woman, Dora Muhammad, Congregation Engagement Director and Health Equity Program Manager with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, led the initiative to require medical practitioners licensed by the Board of Medicine to complete two hours of continuing education in each biennium on topics related to implicit bias and cultural competency. While I was grateful to witness the birth of my niece Genesis, the following morning I witnessed SB 456, sponsored by a Black woman, Senator Locke, fail to report out of the Senate Education and Health’s Health Professions subcommittee with only two supporting votes from Senator Hashmi and the bill patron herself. The House version, HB 1105, also sponsored by a Black woman, Delegate McQuinn, met the same fate through a voice vote by the Health, Welfare, Institutions Subcommittee Three. These bills could have led to greater outcomes for other Black mothers and Black babies. Instead, they were put off until the 2023 General Assembly Session.

    The Hippocratic Oath, “Do No Harm,” is the first commitment to becoming a doctor. While the data continues to point to disparities in maternal and infant health, there continues to be a lack of willingness to explicitly name, call out racism, or even acknowledge the possibility that racism could very much be a factor in healthcare disparities. For Black mothers, the fear of giving birth is valid. In 2020, the New York Times created a guide as a resource, Protecting Your Birth: A Guide For Black Mothers.

    While Black women continue to champion change, Virginia too must commit to doing better for Black mothers and Black babies.



    Diduk-Smith, PhD, MPH, Ryan Marie. Rep. Report to the General Assembly Workgroup Study: Fetal and Infant Mortality Review Team (FIMRT) HB1950 of 2021. Richmond, VA : Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Virginia Department of Health, 2021.

    Humenick, Sharron S. “The Life-Changing Significance of Normal Birth.” The Journal of Perinatal Education. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2006. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1804308/.

    “Infant Mortality Rates by Race/Ethnicity: Virginia, 2016-2018 Average.” Peristats | March of Dimes. Accessed February 10, 2022. https://www.marchofdimes.org/peristats/ViewSubtopic.aspx?reg=51&top=6&stop=92&lev=1&slev=4&obj=1.

    Hobron, Kathrin ‘Rosie. “Annual Report 2017 – Virginia Department of Health.” Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Annual Report 2017. Virginia Department of Health, 2017. https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/content/uploads/sites/18/2019/04/Annual-Report-2017.pdf.

    Rouse, Melanie J. “Chronic Disease in Virginia Pregnancy Associated Deaths …” Chronic Disease in Virginia Pregnancy Associated Deaths, 1999-2012: Need for Coordination of Care, 2019. https://vdh.virginia.gov/content/uploads/sites/18/2019/08/MMRT-Chronic-Disease-Report-FINAL-VERSION.pdf.

    United States Department of Human Services. “Racial and Ethnic Disparities Continue in Pregnancy-Related Deaths.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, September 6, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/p0905-racial-ethnic-disparities-pregnancy-deaths.html.

  6. Intersectional Solutions to Increasing Food Access & Nutrition Security in Virginia


    According to Feeding America, in Virginia, 799,620 people are facing hunger and 9.4 percent of the people in Virginia face food insecurity.  Of those, 214,270 are children. In 2019, Voices for Virginia’s Children reported 11.5 percent children in Virginia were food insecure. 

    • 1 in 11 people experience hunger
    • 1 in 9 children experience hunger

    Food insecurity does not necessarily hold the same definition as hunger or starvation. Hunger is a condition that may result from food insecurity. It is the prolonged involuntary lack of food that goes beyond the usual “uneasy” sensation. It results in discomfort, illness, weakness, pain, or malnutrition.

    There are different forms of food security and food insecurity. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced language to name the ranges in conditions:

    • High food security is described as no reported indications of food access problems or limitations;
    • Marginal food security is described as 1 or 2 reported indications, such as anxiety over insufficient food or a shortage of food in a household but little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake;
    • Low food security is described as reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability related to one’s diet but little to no reduced food intake;
    • Very low food security is described as multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns in combination with reduced food intake.

    In Feeding America’s Map, the Meal Gap study assessed that the average cost of a meal in Virginia is $3.17 cents. The annual budget shortfall that individuals who experience food insecurity reported needing, on average, was $433,605,000 to minimally meet their needs.

    Generating food security means ensuring all people have access to enough food to live an active and healthy lifestyle. Some states, including Virginia, have increased access to their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. This involved increasing SNAP thresholds to 200 percent of the poverty level, including in Virginia, to ensure more people are eligible.

    Voices for Virginia’s Children co-leads the Virginia Food Access Coalition with the American Heart Association – Virginia. To move the state forward, Virginia must:

    Invest $1.7M to Reduce Diet-Related Chronic Illnesses through the Produce RX Program.

    COVID-19 has increased Virginia’s food insecurity rate. Numerous studies have demonstrated correlations between food insecurity and poor health outcomes, such as higher level of chronic disease, hypertension, asthma, stroke, and cancer. The Produce Rx program will provide fresh, locally grown produce alongside healthcare and nutrition counseling to empower patients to overcome barriers to the consumption of fruits and vegetables. The program will allow medical professionals in Virginia to prescribe fresh fruit and vegetables to patients experiencing diet-related chronic illnesses. Over 500,000 Virginians eligible for SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid that may have specific dietary needs could be eligible for the Produce RX Program.

    Support the Produce RX Program: House Bill 1106 (Del. McQuinn), Item 341 #6h (Del. McQuinn), and Item 340 #2s (Sen. McClellan).

    Invest $2M to Support Local Farms & Access to Healthy & Nutritious Foods through Virginia Fresh Match.

    Virginia Fresh Match is a statewide initiative that started at the community-level to directly support Virginia’s agriculture and further increase access to fresh and nutritious foods for consumers who are low-income.  Every dollar of SNAP and incentives goes from the customer’s hand into a farmer’s pocket. VFM doubles the purchasing power of residents who are food insecure to increase revenue for farmers through redemption of federal nutrition benefit at markets and community-based retailers. With state support, VFM can reach more customers and grow the number of participating outlets, including supporting incentives for the Virginia Food Access Investment fund grantees.

    Support the Virginia Fresh Match Program: Item 96 #2h (Del. McQuinn), Item 96 #1s (Sen. McClellan), and Item 96 #1h, (Del. Filler-Corn).

    Invest $2M to Scale Up Virginia’s Food Supply Chain and Infrastructure through the Virginia Food Access Investment Fund.

    COVID-19 has increased Virginia’s food insecurity. It has further highlighted the urgent need to invest funds in Virginia’s food supply chain. Under resourced farmers and food distributors are facing high demands from Virginia’s Food banks. The Virginia Food Access Investment Fund invests in healthy food projects and businesses by providing funding to support construction, rehabilitation, equipment, upgrades, grocery store expansion, amongst other food and nutrition providers.

    Support the Virginia Food Access Investment Fund: Item 98 #9h (Del. McQuinn) and Item 98 #2s (Sen. McClellan).

    Take Action:

    • Click here to send an email to your public official to support the Virginia Fresh Match Program.  
    • Click here to send an email to your public official to support the Produce RX Program.  
    • Click here to send an email to your public official to support the Virginia Food Access Investment Fund.  

    Advocacy Opportunities:

    • Register for weekly GA Virginia Food Access Coalition meetings.  
    • Register for the Virginia Food Access & Nutrition Advocacy Day.  
    • Register for our upcoming Legislative Advocacy & Storytelling training.
  7. Tax Credits Provide Essential Financial Relief to Working Families: Tell Lawmakers to Act

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    The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis joins Voices for Virginia’s Children as a guest-contributor for this analysis of Virginia’s tax policy; edited for the Voices’ blog.

    While most parents dread filing taxes each year this chore can connect working families to federal relief in the form of a tax refund or rebate. That refund check often brings smiles and financial relief to homes. When sifting through tax-filing sites or accounting services, working families may notice they qualify for a tax credit for disclosing expenses for child care, health care, or education. In many cases, the credit reduces the overall tax burden and can be returned as a refundable credit or rebate: a check from the US Treasury or State Treasury or a direct deposit to your account.

    The Virginia and federal tax systems have different rules about qualifying credits and deductions. This year, the federal tax program for families will include the second half (six months’ worth) of the Child Tax Credit payments. You may have received a letter stating what benefits you already received and will be eligible to receive when filing your taxes for 2021. While prolonged debate on the Build Back Better Act has halted the flow of monthly payments, families will receive the remainder of the Child Tax Credit payments when they file taxes this spring.

    But for now, the monthly, expanded child tax credit payments have ended. We hope Congress will unite to revive Child Tax Credit payments in the coming months.

    In the meantime, there are two issues the Virginia legislature is considering:

    Conformity to Federal Tax Laws for 2021 Would Benefit Young Adults

    In Virginia, emergency legislation from Senator Janet Howell (SB94) and Delegate Kathy Byron (HB1003) would align the state’s rules to federal rules.  Adopting the new federal rules for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), among other improvements,  would entitle Virginia families and young adults with up to 20% of the federal credit.

    For young adults without children, the Federal maximum benefit for “childless tax filers” has increased to $1502. At a state level, young adults would be entitled to up to $300 credit on their state income tax. However, for 2021, the state credit is not refundable, so conforming to the federal EITC would reduce state tax burdens but would not provide a state rebate. Meaning, that young adults and former foster youth could owe fewer taxes this year.

    Adopting the Earned Income Tax Credit would offer state tax credits to the following young adults:

    • 19 and older: if working enough to earn taxable income;
    • 24 and older: if  pursuing education for at least five months of the year;
    • 18 and older: if they were in foster care any time after they turned 14 or were homeless in any taxable year

    Refundable State Tax Credits in 2022 and Beyond

    Another issue the legislature will consider this year is whether to make our state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) partially refundable so that it can be returned to families with their state tax rebate. Approximately 72% of all tax filers who benefit from the EITC have children, so creating a refundable portion would impact over one in three children in Virginia.

    In his outgoing budget proposal, Governor Northam proposed to make the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) partially refundable for working families with low and moderate incomes. Voices is a member of the Virginians for Tax Fairness Coalition led by The Commonwealth Institute and New Virginia majority. As a member of that coalition, we support two bills under consideration in the Virginia House and Senate for a refundable EITC: Senator Barker’s SB343, Senator McPike’s SB515; Delegate Price’s HB1312.

    A partially refundable credit would better center the needs of low-income families and families of color in our state budget. And if Congress makes any federal changes and advances the Build Back Better Act, young adults could look forward to refundable credits among other support.

    Read more about how state lawmakers’ tax policy choice could impact families and state revenues from The Commonwealth Institute.

  8. Voices’ Youth Advocacy Day Recap


    (Pictured above: Cohort members and Voices’ staff take a “before” picture before embarking on their legislative meetings.)

    “Keep going. Don’t ever stop. Don’t ever let anybody silence your voice. Don’t ever let you silence your voice. Understand the importance of what you do… Keep pushing, because one day it will really pay off.” – Jonathan, 15 years old, from Hampton, VA


    Our 2022 Advocacy Cohort completed their Youth Advocacy Day on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. Fifteen youth and young adults, ages 14 – 25, divided into four small but mighty groups to meet with fifteen policymakers (a combination of Delegates and Senators) throughout the afternoon. Advocates presented on key issues impacting themselves and their communities such as the state of youth mental health, improvements for the foster care system, needed supports and protections for LGBTIQIA+ youth, and equitable access to health coverage.

    “I talked about being trans and the discrimination that LGBTQ kids face in schools, and the fact that we endure so much… People are really hateful and spiteful and say horrible things… I’ve been asking for there to be some sort of set punishment and just understanding of why [these protections] are so important.” – Grace, 14 years old

    “Whether we’re fighting for health care or mental health services or more inclusive classrooms or more inclusive language or anything of that nature, my main thing was just making sure that we’re considering our young people every step of the way, because the choices that our policymakers and legislators make today, we’re gonna have to deal with tomorrow.” – Elijah, 14 years old

    Several cohort members and Voices’ staff meet with Del. Conyer

    (Pictured above: Several cohort members and Voices’ staff meet with Del. Conyer.)

    “Mental health is the same thing as your physical health. It’s just as important, if not more important, so we really need to prioritize that and make it so that everybody has equal opportunities.” – Aaliyana, 16 years old

    “I talked about how bullying is equated to hate crimes at the moment and how that’s just unacceptable because they are two very different things. I asked a lot of the people we spoke with to start building [more protective] systems into schools.” – Chanel, 19 years old

    Cohort members presenting to Sen. McClellan’s office with Voices’ Chief Policy Officer, Emily Griffey

    (Pictured above: Cohort members presenting to Sen. McClellan’s office with Voices’ Chief Policy Officer, Emily Griffey.)

    “There’s just a lack of help… because of language access. I also talked about health insurance and… the human right to just being able to access [medical and mental health treatment].” – Naomi, 17 years old

    Cohort members advocate for youth mental health support with Del. Delaney

    (Pictured above: Cohort members advocate for youth mental health support with Del. Delaney.)

    Advocates meeting with Sen. Mason’s offices with Voices’ Policy and Programs Director Allison Gilbreath

    (Pictured above: Advocates meeting with Sen. Mason’s offices with Voices’ Policy and Programs Director Allison Gilbreath.)

    Originally scheduled to be a series of in-person events and legislative meetings, the cohort quickly pivoted in response to the surge in COVID-19 cases and worked together to support and encourage one another throughout the virtual advocacy day. Cohort participants worked with Policy Team members to practice storytelling and connecting their experiences to policy and upcoming legislation.

    This group of changemakers left legislators and the Voices’ team completely inspired, moved, and awe-struck. We know their courageous storytelling is making incredible impact and we were honored and humbled to support them on their advocacy journeys.

  9. Increasing Language Access & Equity in Virginia

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    Virginia is home to speakers of many languages. However, the access to language services are inconsistent across the state varying from agency to agency. Without these consistencies, there are no statewide guidelines to ensuring limited English proficient (LEP) individuals can get access to the adequate services they need. According to Voices for Virginia’s Children:

    • 1 in 4 children are immigrants or living in an immigrant family;
    • 1 in 5 children in Virginia speak a language other than English;
    • 44,000 children may require language access services;

    Languages most often spoken by speakers with limited English proficiency in Virginia include Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 13166 requires recipients of federal financial assistance to take reasonable steps to make their programs, services, and activities accessible to individuals who are eligible with limited English proficiency.

    In April 2021, the Virginia Department of Health published instructions for English-speaking readers stating the COVID-19 vaccine “will not be required for Virginians.” However, the Spanish-language translation conducted through a Google Translation widget stated, the COVID-19 vaccine, “no sera necesario,” or will not be necessary. Notably, Virginia may have further exacerbated disparities minority communities were already facing. While the public was encouraged to seek credible information, the state failed to ensure it was comprehensive to all.

    During the 2021 special legislative session, $500,000 was included in the budget for a language access translation planning consulting services report, which highlighted 3 in 4 state agencies could not meet LEP speaker needs most of the time. These kinds of barriers have been exacerbated by the urgent needs of the pandemic, which makes an already lengthy process, such as getting access to unemployment in Virginia even lengthier for speakers who are LEP.

    Three bills have been introduced during the Virginia General Assembly Session to increase language access and ensure every family is able to gain access to the information and services they need, including their health care options. Each bill focuses on supporting language access for the following areas:

    • (SB 270 & HB 1049) – all state agencies (services provision and administration);
    • (HB 987) – a Department of Medical Assistance Services (DMAS) bill that will specifically impact Medicaid in the state code and will address that part of the code;
    • (SB 245) – DMAS, and medical debt.

    In addition to language access, the medical debt bill includes critical provisions to ensure linguistically marginalized communities in Virginia (LMCs) understand their medical bills, know their rights to medical debt assistance, and receive essential information in-language.

     SB 270 & HB 1049 notably establishes basic principles so that all Virginians are able to access state agency services feasibly; the legislation

    1. Requires each state agency to adopt a language access policy (implementing the Commonwealth’s policy) by November 1, 2023. 
    2. Requires each agency to designate a language access coordinator who will be responsible for developing and implementing the agency’s language access policy and preparing the agency’s annual language access report. 
    3. Establishes an Interagency Working Group on Language Access that will develop a model language access policy for adoption by state agencies and will make recommendations for policy and funding changes to ensure language access needs, particularly for populations who do not speak one of the 10 major foreign languages.
    4. Requires Secretary of Administration to establish criteria for the procurement of language interpretation and translation services by state agencies and determine qualifications of and compensation for state employees who are multilingual and are required as part of their job to provide interpretation, translation, or other bilingual skills at least once a month.
    5. Codifies Virginia agencies’ Title VI obligations.

    Since 2006, at least 43 states have enacted law(s) addressing language access in healthcare settings. Virginia has the opportunity to join others and further lead. 

    Take Action.

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