A mission to protect vulnerable children: Alumna solidifies a legacy of helping those affected by abuse and neglect

Robin Foster, M.D., co-founder and direct of the Child Protection Team at Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU, stands flanked by Emily Horne, a nurse practitioner, on the left and Carly Barrows, a licensed clinical social worker, on the right.

Robin Foster, M.D. (M.D.’89/M; H.S.’92/M), co-founded the Child Protection Team at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU 26 years ago. The team focuses on helping children who have been neglected or physically or sexually abused. From left to right are Emily Horne, a nurse practitioner with the team, Foster and Carly Barrows (B.S.’11/H&S; M.S.W.’14/SW), a licensed clinical social worker who coordinates the team and helps provide mental health services. Photo by Jud Froelich.

By Erica Naone

Robin Foster, M.D. (M.D.’89/M; H.S.’92/M), has barely slept. She worked a night shift in VCU Health’s pediatric emergency department, she explains, as she navigates the hallways of the Children’s Pavilion at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. She excuses herself briefly to check on a family. She can’t stay with them long — she’s looking ahead to a full day of work with CHoR’s Child Protection Team, which she co-founded and leads as director.

Twenty-six years have passed since she started the team, whose sole focus is helping children who have been neglected or physically or sexually abused. As one of only three physicians in Virginia who is board-certified to treat child abuse and neglect, Foster often travels the state to handle these sorts of cases.

Though she specializes in pediatrics, Foster says, she never intended to focus on child abuse and neglect. “It picked me,” she says.

Aside from her responsibilities with the Child Protection Team, Foster teaches in the VCU School of Medicine as an associate professor in emergency medicine and pediatrics. In 2017, she stepped down as chair of the Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at CHoR. Without that day-to-day administrative responsibility, Foster threw herself into forming new partnerships to enhance the work of the Child Protection Team.

The team, which is largely composed of nurse practitioners trained to address issues of child abuse and neglect, recently began to provide mental health services as well. Licensed clinical social worker Carly Barrows (B.S.’11/H&S; M.S.W.’14/SW) came on board as coordinator and has spearheaded this effort.

Barrows is working toward a goal of providing therapy services for children the team treats and is working to make exam rooms and treatment areas at CHoR more trauma-informed, as these environments will be made more comfortable for children and families who have experienced trauma. This involves recognizing and acknowledging trauma triggers, Barrows explains, and setting up the room with an eye toward soothing the patient. This could involve warmer colors, softer lighting or systems that can help distract a patient from difficult examinations.

Foster and Barrows are particularly excited about a new grant, which started in July, from the Family and Children’s Trust Fund of Virginia. Funds from the grant will assist with allotting time for staff to screen all caregivers who accompany children into the team’s outpatient clinic at CHoR. In partnership with Project Empower, an initiative at VCU Health that provides services to people experiencing intimate partner violence, the team can identify caregivers with risk factors such as domestic violence or adverse childhood experiences they may have gone through as a child themselves. Then, the team can connect them to resources aimed at preventing the cycle of domestic violence and intergenerational trauma. This grant will also assist staff with implementing a support group for teens which will aim to prevent teen dating violence.

“I think that parenting is the hardest job that anybody ever has,” Foster says. “It’s much easier for me to work a night shift in our ER on a Saturday than to raise the three children in our household. There are unique challenges, and I think that there is a huge stigma to saying, ‘I don’t know how to do this, I need help.’”

Foster says reducing that stigma is key to reducing child abuse and neglect. For example, home visits, in which a social worker checks on a family, are often seen as a punishment or a sign of trouble. Foster is piloting a program to address this at the newborn nursery at CHoR in collaboration with its director, Tiffany Kimbrough, M.D., and the Virginia Department of Social Services. Every family gets a home visit seven days after the birth of a child, regardless of whether they show risk signs for child abuse and neglect. Providing support to all families, she says, rather than focusing only on particular demographics, is important because child abuse and neglect can occur in any home. At the same time, universal education could make families who need help more comfortable with receiving it.

These types of partnerships are one of the reasons Foster is excited to work for VCU. She praises the people, resources and potential for collaboration as well as the university’s commitment to her work.

“Child abuse prevention and treatment programs don’t make any money, and so lots of institutions do not have child abuse programs,” Foster says. In contrast, she says, VCU “has been supportive and protective of our program and allowed us to continue expanding.”

Barrows says that Foster, in turn, is supportive and protective of the team. “This is not an easy job,” Barrows says. “You are seeing a lot of really, really tough things. Her attitude helps everyone around her be able to keep pushing forward to help these children.”

Foster marvels at how long she has stayed in the same place doing the same work. She encounters classmates from the School of Medicine as she travels the state and when she hosts reunions at her home. Lots of them have reinvented themselves multiples times, she says. They often ask, “Are you still doing that full time?”

“Yes,” Foster says.

She doesn’t rule out the possibility of burnout, though, and she’s keenly aware that child abuse is an ongoing problem. “I used to say when I was younger that I would like to put myself out of business in terms of the treatment side,” Foster says. “I’m not sure I’m that naive now.”

In recent years, she’s been looking to ensure that the Child Protection Team remains sustainable after current team members move on. In particular, she’s looking to make sure the team has enough resources to do its work without relying on extreme devotion of individual members.

She talks often about the feeling of family she has at VCU Health. She praises the nurse practitioners on the team, who have worked with her for years and who take calls for cases of acute sexual assault 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. She praises the staff who invest themselves in the work.

She also maintains her commitment to her family, including her husband, Jeffrey Haynes, M.D. (M.D.’87/M; H.S.’94/M), and their three children. “I’m lucky because my three children turned out just fine and my husband is still very supportive,” she says.

Foster recently planned a trip with extended family to Ireland to explore family roots.

The idea of continuity through generations seems very much on her mind. What Foster hopes for now, she says, is “to have a legacy, to leave these programs that I hope will stay in place forever and will improve the outcomes for these kids.”

As the next shift starts, she makes a joke about her “vice” of drinking Diet Mountain Dew and gets back to work.

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