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Advocates Call for Permanent Children's Cabinet

Women and children
First Lady Pamela Northam interacts with children during the Playdate at the Capitol event in February. (Photo: Voices for Virginia's Children)

Children’s advocates in Virginia are pushing to make the Children's Cabinet a permanent fixture in the state. The cabinet was put together by Gov. Ralph Northam in 2018 to focus on children’s issues, but because it was formed by executive order, it will end with his administration. 

The cabinet is chaired by First Lady Pamela Northam and includes Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and the secretaries of education, agriculture and forestry, health and human resources, and public safety and homeland security. 

Advocates say the cabinet’s diverse membership encourages a holistic and intersectional approach to four key issue areas: early childhood development, food security, student safety and trauma-informed care. 

“To keep that focus on children is to have a permanent Children's Cabinet with a staffed advisor position to elevate the prominence of children's issues,” said Emily Griffey, Chief Policy Officer of Voices for Virginia’s Children, who has spearheaded this effort

The creation of a permanent advisor position is a central demand for many of the groups pushing this initiative. Lisa Specter-Dunaway of Families Forward Virginia, who is also a member of the cabinet’s early childhood development workgroup, says it would ensure that children’s issues are kept a priority.

“While the First Lady chaired this Children's Cabinet… there's no guarantee that that will be the top priority of a governor's spouse,” Specter-Dunaway said. “Having a permanent staff person who is involved in this work really will make a big difference.”

Organizers say a permanent cabinet would allow members to track and build upon historical data related to the cabinet’s fiscal and policy records. They say continuing the cabinet would prevent a set-back to its work every time a new governor takes office.

The potential for this problem first came to the forefront during the transition between the administrations of former governor Terry McAuliffe and Northam. McAullife formed the first Children's Cabinet in 2014 to focus on nutrition, healthcare and education. 

“Institutionalizing some of these things like the Children's Cabinet means that each governor comes in and the infrastructure is already there. They don't have to wait until the second year of their term before something gets off the ground,” said Valerie L’Herrou, staff attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s Center for Family Advocacy.

She adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for state agencies to work together to find solutions during times of crisis, and that the Children’s Cabinet can offer a blueprint for that collaboration.

Salaam Bhatti, VPLC attorney and director of Virginia Hunger Solutions, is a member of the cabinet’s workgroup on food security. He says the cabinet has been crucial in confronting childhood hunger in the state through its creation of the Virginia Roadmap to End Hunger.

“This would not have been possible if we did not have such a great network of stakeholders and individuals who came to the table to offer their guidance and their advice,” Bhatti said. “The work we've been able to do over the past couple years is absolutely fantastic, and it really needs a permanent home.”

The Northam administration credits the Children’s Cabinet with helping allocate $98 million to increase access to quality early childhood care and education, while transferring oversight over these services from the Department of Social Services to the Department of Education. 

The Cabinet also helped expand the Virginia Preschool Initiative to include “at-risk” three-year-olds in Pre-K education.

In a statement, Northam’s Press Secretary Alena Yarmosky also praised the cabinet’s work in highlighting childcare, K-12 education and childhood nutrition as areas in need of relief funding during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also expressed support for the cabinet’s work regarding racial disparities in healthcare .

“The goals of the Children's Cabinet are among the most important to the governor and first lady. Cross-secretariat cooperation will continue to be critical to achieving our administration's goals,” Yarmosky said. “We support the continuation of the Children's Cabinet work beyond our administration.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Lisa Specter-Dunaway's last name. It has been corrected.