Member of the Month: Valerie Branch
FFLIC is excited to honor Ms. Valerie Branch as our December Member of the Month! Ms. Valerie has been with FFLIC for over 10 years and has worked with us on a variety of issues, from parent advocacy to protecting youth in secure care facilities to combatting the school-to-prison pipeline. She was recently nominated by FFLIC and honored with a Human Development Award from Catholic Charities for Human Development (CCHD). Congratulations, Ms. Valerie!
Ms. Valerie first connected with FFLIC when she was working as a social worker in children’s mental health services. She encountered a client who had become involved in the juvenile justice system and she sought out resources in the community to help parents. FFLIC stood out because, she says, “It was parent-driven and so many parents feel like: ‘What can I do?’” By uniquely centering parents and close family in conversations about juvenile justice, FFLIC helps to re-frame the conversation from one about punitive discipline to one that focuses on how we can help our kids to do better. “I’m not sure that all of us really believe our children can do better,” says Ms. Valerie. “And we haven’t accepted our own responsibility. We blame the parents, we blame the system, and we blame the environment.” But if we really believed in our children, she explains, we could create meaningful change in their lives through creating a positive and supportive community.
Since she already had experience working with children and families, Ms. Valerie was the perfect fit for FFLIC. Before Katrina, she started doing community outreach with FFLIC, going into housing developments to inform parents about their rights and the resources available to them. The best case scenario, she explains, is to get involved before a child enters the justice system. This kind of outreach is the backbone of FFLIC’s work and also led Ms. Valerie, and the organization as a whole, to start looking more closely at schools and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Ms. Valerie has been involved with various campaigns to encourage school systems to look more closely at their discipline processes and examine instances of bias. She has also contributed to the Dignity in Schools national campaign to end “zero tolerance” policies that lead to more suspensions and expulsions, predominantly for students of color and students with disabilities. She describes her work with FFLIC as a “progression toward changing the systems that lead to the criminalization of youthful behavior.”
Connected to that, she has also focused her energy on addressing disproportionate minority contact with law enforcement, which leads to greater incarceration rates for people of color. She cites studies that have demonstrated that Black and Brown communities are actually policed in different ways than white communities and, therefore, individuals in those communities have higher rates of interacting with law enforcement. This then inflates arrests. This phenomenon is then replicated by the school system, which frequently puts police officers in schools which serve a greater proportion of minority students, increasing those children’s rates of police interaction from Kindergarten on until twelfth grade. Decriminalizing the behavior of poor youth and youth of color is crucial to sending the message that all children matter.
Ms. Valerie is a unique resource for FFLIC as she has interacted with the juvenile system from every angle, from providing treatment to completing assessments for the court. She has been involved in youth and family services for over 30 years and, in her own words, has “done everything, from prevention to detention.” Indeed, some of her earlier experiences working with youth and families have shaped her belief in their ability to manifest positive change and success. Some of these experiences have made her “painfully aware of disparities in the legal system as well as forever mindful that innocence provides no protection from an unjust conviction.”
At the parish detention center where she worked, Ms. Valerie was responsible for the unit that did mental health assessments of children who were sent there. It was at this pivotal moment in her career that she began to encourage parents to become advocates for their children. She encountered parents who were woefully misinformed of their rights—some of them didn’t even know they could talk to their child’s attorney before court, and didn’t know they could advocate for their child’s needs. Like their children, they felt disempowered by a system that seemed set up to hand down judgment instead of a helping hand. By connecting them to organizations like FFLIC, Ms. Valerie was able to help parents take back agency in their lives, and work with the courts, lawyers, and officers to imagine a better path for their children.
Ultimately, connecting parents and children to resources in the community will allow them to get their needs met by the systems that are supposed to be serving them. FFLIC, Ms. Valerie says, is one of these crucial resources. “FFLIC is a unique resource for all the families and youth in this community to help parents become advocates for their own children, as well as for all the children in our community. The more people we can train to be advocates for the children in our community, the better the possibilities are for all of our children.”
FFLIC could not be more proud to have collaborated with Ms Valerie Branch over the years, or to watch her accomplishments acknowledged by CCHD this past November. We look forward to much more successful work together in the future!