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Mortality Rates for Breast Cancer Reflect Health Disparities

By Rosemarie O’Connor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — “Oh my God, I’m going to die.”

On March 19, 2018, Margrietta Nickens was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. Over the next five months, she had six cycles of chemo. After that, she had surgery to remove the cancerous tissue from her breast.

“When you’re diagnosed with something as devastating as cancer,” Nickens said, “you look at it as a death sentence.”

Nickens is one of thousands of people diagnosed with cancer in Virginia. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be over 45,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed in the commonwealth in 2019. That number includes 7,000 cases of breast cancer.

Cancer was the leading cause of death in Virginia in 2017, with over 15,000 people perishing from the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of every four deaths in the United States is due to cancer.

“My first emotion was panic and fear,” Nickens said. “From fear, I got very angry.”

She asked herself over and over again: “Why me?”

Nickens had to stop working after her diagnosis. “The chemo makes me very sick,” she said. “Some days I can’t even get out of bed.” Nickens lost her hair during chemotherapy and suffers from nausea and fatigue.

At her first chemo appointment, she met a woman with the same cancer diagnosis as her and the same care team. She said they have kept in touch since then and even have the same treatment appointments.

“She calls me, and she’s in tears sometimes,” Nickens said. “The first thing we learned to do is just listen to each other — just be quiet and listen.”

She and her friend find solace in their faith and try to remain strong for their families. Nickens has one daughter still in college and three adult sons who all live in the Richmond area.

The cost of cancer: often, your life savings

Cancer isn’t just a health problem — it can be a financial catastrophe.

The Agency for Healthcare research and Quality estimates that the direct medical costs for cancer in the U.S. in 2015 totaled $80.2 billion.

According to a 2018 report from the American Cancer Society, “uninsured patients and those from many ethnic minority groups are substantially more likely to be diagnosed with cancer at a later stage, when treatment can be more extensive, costlier, and less successful.”

After Nickens’ cancer diagnosis, she was automatically enrolled in Medicaid, the government-funded health care program for low-income individuals.

This year, Nickens was dropped from Medicaid and enrolled in Medicare because she was placed on disability.

This has caused complications for Nickens because certain cancer treatment costs that were covered under Medicaid are not covered under Medicare.

For example, Nickens loves her care team that Medicaid was paying for at Bon Secours Health System. That service isn’t covered by Medicare. Nickens has been fighting to get back on Medicaid so she can return to her original care team.

Nickens said Medicare does not cover all of her medications now. One medication costs her about $1,500 every few months.

As new drugs and more technologically advanced treatments come on the market, some patients are choosing to delay their care or fill only part of their prescription.

A 2013 study from The Oncologist, a medical journal, showed that 20% of patients surveyed took less than the prescribed amount of their medication to save money — and 24% avoided filling prescriptions altogether.

The Journal of Oncology found that between 1995 and 2009, patients who filed for bankruptcy after their diagnosis were more likely to be younger, female and nonwhite.

A study from The American Journal of Medicine showed that around 42% of patients surveyed depleted their entire life savings within two years of diagnosis.

For patients with breast cancer, the cost of chemotherapy can range from $10,000-$100,000 depending on the drugs, method and number of treatments, according to HealthCostHelper.com.

Nickens is an African American woman and worked in medical billing before her diagnosis, so she has experience dealing with the insurance system. Still, she said she feels like the stress from dealing with insurance has negatively impacted her recovery.

Nickens said she sympathizes with others who don’t have experience, who have to navigate the insurance system while undergoing treatment.

She wishes the case managers she speaks to and others would show more compassion. She wants to feel like “more than a piece of paper with a person’s name on it.”

“I feel like my life is in someone else’s hands,” Nickens said of her diagnosis.

Disparities among who survives

African Americans and whites are diagnosed with cancer at about the same rates, according to the CDC. (Asian Americans and Native Americans, on the other hand, are less likely to get cancer, the data shows.)

But there are racial disparities in who dies of cancer. Nationally, African Americans have a higher rate of mortality.

For example, of every 100,000 African Americans, 181 died of cancer in 2015, according to the CDC. For every 100,000 white people, there were 159 cancer deaths.

The CDC has reported that African American women are more likely to die from breast cancer, with a rate of nearly 28 deaths per 100,000 compared to about 20 per 100,000 population for white women.

The CDC says that differences in “genetics, hormones, environmental exposures, and other factors” can lead to differences in risk among different groups of people.

The American Cancer Society states that much of the suffering and death from cancer could be prevented by more systematic efforts to reduce tobacco use, improve diet and physical activity, and expand the use of established screening tests.

According to a 2018 report from the American Association for Cancer Research, women who have private health insurance are significantly more likely to be up to date with breast cancer screening than women who are uninsured.

African American women are 75% more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at an advanced stage than non-Hispanic white women, theassociation reported. Hispanic women are about 69% more likely than non-Hispanic white women to receive a late diagnosis.

The survival rate for breast cancer depends heavily on the stage at diagnosis. When found early, the survival rate is much higher than later stage cancers.

The statewide mortality rate for breast cancer is 26 per 100,000 people. But, in some areas, it’s over 40 per 100,000 according to aggregate statistics for 2013-17 from CDC WONDER, a federal database on causes of death.

Five communities, mostly in rural areas, had a rate of about 50 or more breast cancer deaths per 100,000 women. Martinsville was the highest, with a death rate of 68 per 100,000. The other communities were Colonial Heights, Bristol and Westmoreland and Page counties.

The lowest rates were concentrated in more affluent communities, like Loudoun, Arlington, Prince William and Fairfax counties — all with a rate below 20 breast cancer deaths per 100,000 women.

In general, African American women and women in rural areas saw the highest death rates for breast cancer.

African American women in Suffolk, a city in the Hampton Roads area, had a rate of more than 46 breast cancer deaths per 100,000 population. That was more than double the rate for white women in Suffolk.

The numbers were similar in Richmond, where African American women had a death rate of almost 39 per 100,000 population compared with just 17 per 100,000 for white women.

Those large differences in death rates are an example of the health disparities impacting vulnerable populations across America.

The CDC defines health disparities as “preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations.” These disparities are often due to sex, race, education and geography among other factors.

‘Our environment shapes our choices’

Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus and senior advisor at the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health, said there are common misconceptions around health disparities.

“People think that just because you have a hospital in the area, it’ll make things better — or access to doctors, hospitals, pills saves lives. That certainly helps, but it’s not the determining factor,” said Woolf, one of the nation’s leading experts on the subject of health disparities.

“People assume it’s all a matter of personal choice and responsibility,” Woolf said. “But people can only make the choices they have. What they don’t appreciate is how much our environment shapes our choices,”

For example, he said, “I could say you need to get screen for colon cancer. But that doesn’t help if you live in a rural county and it has no gastroenterologist.”

This lack of access is true for rural Virginia counties and more urban centers where patients may not have access to transportation for their appointments.

“Right now, we are in a period where the most cutting-edge and impactful changes are happening at the local level. Various communities around the country are doing innovative work; others are less progressive,” Woolf said.

‘Life affects health’

Dr. Christine Booker is a professor of health disparities at VCU. She began her career as a nurse and soon realized she could do more to serve the community from the perspective of research and policy.

Booker looks at health from a holistic perspective.

“Health is not just things that are happening to people,” she said. “A lot of the time, their life is affecting their health.”

She explained that if a patient is unable to exercise or make healthier diet choices because of their environment, a health provider may see that as “non-compliance.”

“We’re finding ways to increase awareness for the health community,” she said, “to better understand the communities they are providing care to so they can recommend treatment that is doable.”

Booker said people living in marginalized communities may have higher rates of tobacco and alcohol use to deal with the stress in their environment.

Some people who have lived their whole life in poverty may not be motivated to live longer, Booker said.

However, some gaps in health disparities are closing.

“I think over the next several decades, we’re really going to see a change because the health system can’t continue to just focus on treatment,” Booker said.

“That’s what made me change my focus to prevention — because I realized that if we can stop some of these things before they happen, it would be a lot more successful.”

***

Last August, Margrietta Nickens “rang the bell” — a ritual done in hospitals across the country to mark the successful completion of chemotherapy.

Nickens is completing her last two cycles of maintenance chemotherapy. She said she still has days where she feels fatigued and nauseated but is feeling stronger than before. Her last day of chemo will be June 14.

Farms Feed Food Banks to Fight Hunger

In the above infographic provided with this Capital News Service Article, please notice that EMPORIA IS THE SECOND MOST FOOD INSECURE LOCALITY IN THE COMMONWEALTH. 24.4% of our neighbors do not have reliable access to nutritious foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables.

By Kathleen Shaw and Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Lettuce, turnips and beets — oh my! Vegetables and flowers sprout side by side in a bountiful garden in Northside Richmond. But the harvest is not going to a grocery store or market stand. Instead, all of the crops will be donated to local food banks so low-income communities have access to fresh foods.

The Kroger Community Kitchen Garden, situated within Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, is a major contributor to Feed More, the parent organization for food banks and other agencies fighting hunger in 34 counties and cities in Central Virginia.

In the past, food banks relied on nonperishable donations from supermarkets and other businesses. Today, many of the contributions are not rejects from retail but fresh picked from local farms.

Farm-to-food-bank programs bring healthier options to people facing “food insecurity” — living without means or access to nutritious food. Such programs also offer producers an alternative market for the fruit and vegetables they have grown.

A national organization called Feeding America partners with food banks across the state, including Feed More in Richmond and the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank in Charlottesville, to create a network of hunger relief. Annie Andrews, director of operations at Feed More, said the movement has redefined the support food banks can provide for struggling communities.

“Ten, 15 years ago, food banks were reliant on shelf stable product; you looked at it as a pantry. We’ve absolutely converted to fresh and perishable food,” Andrews said.

The need for food is not solved by a corner store that sells chips and hot dogs. Farm-to-food-bank programs aim to supply better quality food that doesn’t just fill hungry bellies but also provides nutrition to prevent health problems.

Last year, Feed More received nearly $45 million in donated food — almost 30 million pounds of groceries. While retailers contributed more than 60%, about 12% came directly from growers. Produce accounted for 29% of all donated food.

Greg Knight, food sourcing manager for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, said most people who rely on food banks are not unemployed but rather underemployed. Often, they must choose between which basic needs they can afford, he said.

“We hear from clients that sometimes they have to make decisions between ‘Is it going to be gasoline today, or will it be groceries? Will it be the medication that my son or daughter needs, or will it be groceries or the electric bill?’” Knight said.

“There’s not enough funds to cover the immediate basic needs — so that’s where we step in. At least we can provide a good supplemental box of food that will then be nutritious and alleviate some of the other pressures.”

The state and federal governments have encouraged farmers to help out.

In 2016, Virginia instituted a tax credit as an incentive for farmers to donate crops to regional, nonprofit food banks. In exchange for the donation, farmers receive a 30% tax credit equal to the market value up to $5,000 yearly.

Knight said the tax credit is a great way to support farmers and provide food for those in need.

“What I’m paying for the box is only a portion of what the farmer would get at market. So he can take the difference between the two — market price and what I’m paying — and that difference then becomes a donation for him,” Knight said.

On the national level, Congress passed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 to allocate $867 billion in subsidies over the next 10 years to support farmers harmed by fluctuating markets or poor harvests. The food purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from farmers is often resold to food banks like Feed More at a reduced cost.

Community plants seeds for change

The USDA reported that since 2012, about 10% of households in Virginia qualified as “food insecure.” Andrews said the definition of that term is constantly evolving and varies by area.

In a densely populated urban area, she said, it means “there are no grocery stores within a mile.” But in a rural area, food insecurity (or a “food desert”) means “there’s not a grocery store within 10 miles,” Andrews added.

“The gentrification of cities coming into play and people moving into the suburbs — that’s where you’re kind of pushing some of that working poor out,” Andrews said. She said Feed More is seeing a rising need for help in the suburbs — “what you wouldn’t think of as a food insecurity area.”

The Kroger Community Kitchen Garden at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and Shalom Farms in Midlothian are among the biggest farm donors to Feed More.

Laurel Matthew, senior horticulturist at Lewis Ginter, oversees the community garden and decides what to grow in collaboration with Feed More.

“We have six varieties of summer squash. We have four varieties of eggplant. Lettuce, beans, peas, you name it — we’re trying to get it in the ground,” Matthew said.

The Kroger Community Kitchen Garden is an urban gardening program that has harvested and donated over 50,000 pounds of produce to Feed More since it began in 2009.

The community garden is one-third acre funded in part by Kroger Mid-Atlantic under the company’s “Zero Hunger | Zero Waste” initiative. A volunteer base of 700 worked last year with on-staff horticulturalists to practice organic management of the garden and sustain a healthy harvest for the food bank.

Food banks tackle food-related health disparities

Feed More’s agency network involves almost 300 nonprofit organizations such as soup kitchens and emergency shelters. Healthy Harvest Food Bank joined the network in 2010 and last year became Feed More’s first Partner Distribution Organization, which aims to distribute food across 24 of Virginia’s rural agencies. The agency network distributed 19.3 million pounds of food during the past fiscal year.

Healthy Harvest Food Bank serves 12,000 people every month through 25 locations across six counties. In 2012, the food bank conducted a survey and found that 32% of its clients had diabetes.

The food bank partnered with Northern Neck-Middlesex Free Health Clinic and Virginia Cooperative Extension to begin a Healthy Food Pharmacy to teach clients with Type 2 diabetes how to prepare flavorful, nutritious meals to combat health issues. Participants in the eight-week class on average lowered their blood pressure by 17% and low-density lipoproteins cholesterol by 26%. (LDL is considered “bad” cholesterol because of its artery-clogging properties.)

Mark Kleinschmidt, president and CEO of Healthy Harvest Food Bank, said the Northern Neck and Upper Middle Peninsula region suffers from a culture of genetics and a lack of resources to escape the health crisis trap.

“We got a Food Lion and a Walmart, and there’s not that healthy options to eat at whatsoever,” Kleinschmidt said.

He said people want to eat healthy foods but often can’t.

“For one, it’s not available. And two, it’s a cost issue,” Kleinschmidt said. “I think there is always going to be this issue. The Northern Neck will never be big enough to have a Kroger or a Harris Teeter or a Wegman that does have healthier options.”

Legislation to create the Virginia Grocery Investment Program and Fund was introduced to the General Assembly this session. It aimed to provide financial incentives for grocery stores to expand in food deserts.

After passing unanimously in the Senate, the bill died in the House of Delegates. A similar House bill was killed in a House subcommittee early in the session.

Food banks rescue food from waste

According to the USDA, 30-40% of food is wasted in the U.S. annually. Grocery chains such as Lidl have joined the movement against food waste by selling 10-pound crates of “ugly” produce for $2. Food banks are incorporating the “ugly food” movement into their means of sourcing quality food for people living in food insecure areas.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Cooperative was created by Feeding America and stretches from New England to Virginia, providing nearly 1.5 million pounds of produce to food banks each month. The cooperative works to minimize food waste by purchasing “ugly,” rejected food at a large produce market. That produce is then sold back to a network of 23 food banks, including Feed More, for a reduced price.

Andrews said the rescued, unsold produce purchased from large companies along the East Coast saves the stores money, reduces food waste and increases food bank access to resources.

“We offer the opportunity for [grocery stores] not to have an increased trash bill and to be able to do something good with the things that they aren’t able to use and sell,” Andrews said.

As Hospitals Monitor Drugs, Opioid Deaths See Decline

By Katja Timm, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia hospitals are monitoring painkiller prescriptions more closely and taking other steps to curb the opioid epidemic, and the efforts may be paying off: Drug overdoses in Virginia have dropped for the first time in six years.

In 2016, the opioid epidemic was declared a public health emergency in Virginia. Fatal opioid overdoses increased steadily from 572 in 2012 to 1,230 in 2017. Last year, however, the number of deaths dipped, to 1,213, according to preliminary statistics released this week by the Virginia Department of Health.

The decrease coincided with data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing a decline in overall prescriptions of opioids — and with moves by Virginia officials and physicians to apply more scrutiny before issuing such prescriptions.

Dr. Charles Frazier, senior vice president at Riverside Health System in Newport News, said his medical practice and others across Virginia are prescribing narcotics in a more controlled and efficient way.

Frazier was involved in the creation of Virginia’s Emergency Department Care Coordination program.

Established by the General Assembly in 2017, the EDCC’s purpose is to “provide a single, statewide technology solution that connects all hospital emergency departments in the Commonwealth” for the purpose of extending and improving patient care, according to ConnectVirginia, a statewide health information exchange.

“The purpose of the EDCC is to integrate alerts,” Frazier said. “It shows us alerts of whether or not they (patients) have been in other emergency departments, information on how they were treated, with the idea being if a patient came in: Who is their primary care doctor? Who can we connect them to?”

Frazier said that in the program’s first phase, all hospitals in Virginia were required to submit a year or two of historical patient visit data to the EDCC information exchange by June 2017.

“The system is set up to alert emergency department providers and staff if the patient is a frequent emergency department patient, and also if they have been aggressive or abusive to staff,” Frazier said.

Frazier said that most of the time, the system is used to direct patients to proper care.

“I think part of the problem is if people have a hard time with transportation, they go to the ER for basic health care,” Frazier said. “If you go to the emergency room for a sore throat, for example, that can be expensive.”

The second phase of the EDCC, which was implemented last July, involves notifying primary care doctors if their patient is in the emergency department. If the system can identify a patient’s primary care doctor, it will send an alert.

“One thing we are starting to see are health systems collaborate on patients,” Frazier said. “There was a patient at Bon Secours who kept going to various emergency departments around Richmond — VCU, St. Francis, and others. With the EDCC program, they could see where they had been to, and the health systems worked together, along with the insurance company, to help the patient get the primary care they needed.”

Virginia’s Prescription Monitoring Program

Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician himself, helped create the EDCC. He also has been an advocate for the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program.

Under that program, Frazier explained, “Every time a pharmacy prescribes a controlled substance, they need to submit the information to the state — the duration, the dosage — and the system tracks how many times and how many providers have prescribed to the patient.”

Virginia Board of Medicine regulations require seeing chronic pain patients every 90 days and conducting drug screens to make sure patients are taking their medications and not taking illicit substances. Regulations also require prescribing an opioid antidote in certain high-risk situations.

“If you’re treating someone with higher dosages, the regulations outline preventative measures for overdose,” Frazier said.

Opioid overdose fatalities decline

Health officials’ concerns about opioids have grown as fatal overdoses spiked over the past decade. Preliminary numbers show that 1,484 people died from drug overdoses in Virginia in 2018. That is more deaths than from guns (1,036) and traffic accidents (958).

The total number of overdose fatalities was down slightly from 1,536 in 2017.

The vast majority of drug overdose deaths involve opioids. Of the 1,230 opioid-related fatalities last year, about 460 involved prescription medications and the rest involved heroin and/or fentanyl.

The number of prescription opioid deaths dropped from 507 in 2017 to 457 last year. On the other hand, deaths from heroin and/or fentanyl jumped from 940 to 977.

‘These numbers should give us some optimism’

In a press release, Attorney General Mark Herring thanked “advocates, families, doctors, recovery communities, elected officials, public health professionals and others who have helped reduce Virginia’s number of fatal drug overdoses for the first time in six years.”

Herring has been a strong advocate for fighting the opioid epidemic. He has taken a range of actions — from pushing to expand the Prescription Monitoring Program, to producing a documentary titled “Heroin: The Hardest Hit,” to suing Purdue Pharma, the creator of Oxycontin, on grounds that it helped create and prolong the opioid epidemic in Virginia.

“We should be heartened and hopeful to see that overdose deaths seem to have plateaued and may be starting to decline, but nearly 1,500 overdose deaths, mostly from opioids, is still a staggering number that shows this epidemic is far from over,” Herring said.

“But these numbers should give us some optimism that Virginia’s comprehensive approach — emphasizing treatment, education, and prevention, along with smart enforcement — can produce results and save lives.”

New controls on opioid prescriptions

Frazier said the biggest impact on the opioid epidemic might stem from rules imposed last year by the Virginia Board of Medicine.

“Across the state,” Frazier said, “we’ve seen a decrease in the number of opioid prescriptions and the duration of treatment for acute pain — a tremendous difference.”

Frazier said opioids sometimes are appropriate and sometimes aren’t.

“There are people who break their leg and need it for a few days, but for people who have chronic pain, they may require ongoing opioids for a long time,” he said. “While we first try non-opioid therapies, the reality is sometimes opioids are the most effective treatment for chronic pain.”

Patients can self-administer pain relief

When opioids are appropriate for treatment, health care professionals want to ensure that patients can receive their medication safely and easily. Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center Hospitals have a specific technique allowing patients to self-administer drugs.

Samantha Morris, a care partner at the center’s Emergency Department, said narcotics can be administered directly to a patient, by the patient, with the press of a button. This involves a device called a patient-controlled analgesia pump.

“Fentanyl is usually what I see being prescribed the most, and that one is usually administered through a PCA pump,” Morris said. “It delivers some form of narcotic, usually fentanyl, and the patient presses a button to administer themselves a dose every five to ten minutes, depending on the drug.”

The amount of time a dosage from the PCA pump can be administered is based on the strength of the drug prescribed.

“I see patients mostly in the burn victim unit because they’re in a lot of pain,” Morris said.

Morris said she sees patients come in for opioid-related incidents all the time.

“It’s really difficult, because if a patient is addicted to any kind of substances, whether it’s amphetamines or any kind of narcotic to begin with, we can’t administer pain management, because it’s not going to affect the same pathway.”

GOD’S GOUDA: Sisters in Albemarle County Make Cheese

The 13 Sisters of Our Lady of the Angel Monastery squeeze water from the gouda cheese before weighing Thursday morning on March 21, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. Thursday is cheese making day at the monastery and cheese process takes about 6-8 hours from start to finish.

By: Erin Edgerton

The 13 Sisters of Our Lady of the Angel Monastery believe God has a plan for everyone. When Sister Barbara Smickel arrived on the newly purchased 507-acre farm in central Virginia in 1987, she was surprised to find an abandoned cheese barn filled with ready-to-use machinery. Without much hesitation, Smickel and the others realized God’s plan.

The first rounds of cheese made by the Sisters were in 1990.  Their semi-soft, mild Dutch-style Gouda comes in 2-pound wheels. The Sisters use it to make grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tucked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, down a lengthy stretch off Route 250, over a bridge, through the woods and at the end of a gravel road sits Our Lady of the Angels Monastery perched on the hillside. This is where the Sisters live a self-sustained lifestyle filled with prayer, devotion and cheese making.

Their day starts around 3 a.m. with a morning prayer. By 7 a.m., Sister Myriam Saint-Vilus leaves mass early to turn on the autoclave. The windows of the cheese room grow foggy as the room heats up to a proper cheese-mixing temperature. By 9 a.m., Sister Maria Gonzalo forms ovals around steel presses, and by 11 a.m., the machines cut the sheets of cheese mixture into cubes. Sister Jacqueline Melendez takes the cubes and squeezes them into molds. They work in shifts and wear scrubs and rain boots in the barn — it’s a full-day affair.

“This work is good,” Sister Eve Marie Aragona said. “It becomes sort of mindless and allows us to work for God in ways similar to prayer and our studies.”

The sisters prepare the patio with candles and a fire for Easter service Saturday evening April 20, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. Once the guests arrive this begins their procession into the church for Easter mass.

    

Left: Sister Maria Gonzalo, Sister Barbara Smickel and Sister Myriam Saint-Vilus practice lyrics for their Palm Sunday Mass April 12, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. The three have been practicing all week making sure they hit every note correctly and on key. “This is will be the last night we run it, I promise,” said Smickel. Right: The wash room sits foggy on cheese making days. The cheese making process requires a moist environment.

    

Left: Sister Maria Gonzalo stirs the cheese Thursday morning on March 21, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. Thursday is cheese-making day at the monastery and the sisters take turns coming down to the barn in shifts. The cheese is stirred in 20 minute increments, “We always say the secret ingredient is love and prayer. You get out what you put it,” Gonzalo said. Right: Sister Maria Gonzalo checks on the empty milk tank before delivery March 4, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. "We get our milk delivered regularly and locally. We like to know where everything is coming from and exactly what gets put in," Gonzalo said.

     

Left:  Sister Maria Gonzalo opens the curtains to the milk room at the cheese barn. Thursday’s are cheese days and the sisters arrive in shifts down at the barn starting around 7 a.m. Right:  Batch 830 waits in the chilling room to be packaged and sold. The cheese barn has 3 chilling rooms and during the holidays all three can be packed.

    

Left:  Sister Eve Marie Aragona takes a break to call up to the church. Eve Marie prefers working in the cheese barn alone, “I do not really need to this about what I am doing, it is easy, peaceful work,” Aragona said. Right: Sister Jacqueline Melendez mediates during evening vespers March 30, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia.

    

Left: Sister Myriam Saint-Vilus unwraps gouda cheese in the monastery’s kitchen for Sunday’s spaghetti night March 11, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. The sisters use their cheese for almost every meal and it never goes to waste. “How can you get sick of something that you are proud of? We know how it is made and what is in it,” said Saint-Vilus. Right:  Sister Claire Boudrau dishes out spaghetti sauce before supper. The sisters eat family style because it is another way to emphasize community and sharing of blessings. Their Gouda cheese is also served on the table.

The sisters and guests stand in silence as they light candles Saturday evening April 20, 2019 in Crozet, Virginia. This ends their procession into the church for Easter mass.

New Civil War Museum Sheds Light on Untold Stories

 

By Arianna Coghill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — If asked who was involved in the Civil War, most Americans would list the usual suspects: Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson.

But what about Elizabeth Van Lew, a Richmond abolitionist who worked as a spy for the Union army? Or Dr. Mary Walker, who received the Medal of Honor for treating prisoners of war on both sides? What roles did indigenous tribes and immigrants play during the war?

The American Civil War Museum, which holds its grand opening Saturday, aims to tell these stories and more through multimedia, artifacts and personal narratives.

As museum staffers have been setting up exhibits, they “are seeing artifacts being displayed in new ways and telling new stories,” said Stephanie Arduini, the museum’s director of education and programs.

Arduini said the 29,000-square-foot museum contains more than 500 artifacts. For example, visitors will be able to see the Confederate flag that Abraham Lincoln gave to his son, Tad, after the war ended — as well as a Native American moccasin that was sent to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Museum officials said every creative choice associated with the project was deliberate, from the location of the artifacts near each other to the location of the museum itself.

The museum, at 500 Tredegar St., was built at a cost of $25 million on the grounds of the Tredegar Iron Works, which was the largest of its kind in the South and provided artillery for the Confederate States Army. The back wall of the main lobby is an authentic ruin of the ironworks’ central foundry.

“It’s a blend of historic architecture and the new, modern building that’s placed like an exhibit case over the ruins,” Arduini explained. “It’s a nice symbolic contrast of how we approached the stories of the war in terms of looking at the past but placing them in the context of the present.”

The museum, which will be open daily, merges collections from the former Museum of the Confederacy and the former American Civil War Center at Tredegar.

Walking into the pre-gallery space, museum visitors are bombarded with history. The space features large, colorized photos of both famous individuals and relatively unknown players in the Civil War.

If You Go

Location:500 Tredegar St., along the James River near Belle Isle

Hours:Beginning Saturday, the museum will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Admission:$15 for adults; less for seniors, retired military, teachers, students and children

For more information: The museum’s website is https://acwm.org, and the phone number is 804-649-1861.

Photos of Harriet Tubman are featured alongside Phoebe Pember, a Jewish nurse of the Civil War.

“We really wanted people to focus on the faces of the war,” Arduini said.

Solid Light, a company based in Louisville, Kentucky, designed the museum’s exhibits. Its goal was to tell the stories in a high-impact, visual way that would resonate with the audience.

The exhibits include interactive maps to highlight specific battle locations and personal stories of people who experienced them.

Ultimately, the goal of the museum is to move away from the classic narrative of the Civil War and to paint a more complete picture of the events that took place, officials said.

“Traditionally, the story of the Civil War focuses on battles and military strategy. Working closely with CEO Christy Coleman, we designed exhibits to create a more inclusive and authentic experience true to history and the people of the time,” said Cynthia Torp, the owner of Solid Light.

Arduini said museum officials wanted the facility to have a contemporary feel and aesthetic.

“We wanted it to feel vibrant and relevant, like something you’d expect at a museum about something that’s still shaping our lives — because this is still shaping our lives, even though it happened over a 150 years ago,” Arduini said.

Could Hemp Join Tobacco as Big Cash Crop in Virginia?

By Daniel Berti and Andrew Gionfriddo, Capital News Service

JARRATT, Va. — At first glance, it looks like a stoner’s paradise: acres of plants that resemble marijuana. But this crop is hemp, a relative of cannabis that has commercial uses ranging from textiles and animal feed to health products.

Officials at the Southern Virginia Hemp Co., as well as other farmers and processors of the plant, say hemp could be a big boost to the state’s agricultural sector as demand for tobacco wanes. And it just got much easier to grow hemp in the commonwealth.

Lawmakers have amended the state’s hemp laws to match the rules in the 2018 federal farm bill passed by Congress. Virginia farmers can now grow hemp for producing cannabidiol, or CBD, a naturally occurring chemical that some say has mental and physical health benefits.

CBD products have become popular over the past few years, with some industry analysts predicting the CBD industry will be worth $22 billion by 2022. Until now, only researchers at Virginia universities could grow hemp for making CBD.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has seen a surge in grower and processor applications since Congress passed the farm bill in December. The agency expects the number of applicants to increase even more now that Virginia has amended its hemp laws to match the federal laws.

“VDACS was not issuing registrations to processor applicants who indicated that their sole goal was to sell a hemp-derived CBD to the public,” said Erin Williams, a spokesperson for the agency. “With the 2019 amendment, I think it will clear up the gray area.”

As of Tuesday, the department had issued 629 grower registrations and 92 processor registrations. So far, Virginia hemp growers are planning to cultivate over 2,000 acres of hemp this year.

In Southside Virginia, where tobacco growers have been hit hard by declining sales and tariffs on their products, farmers are increasingly turning to hemp as a potential cash crop that can be grown in addition to tobacco. Southside Virginia has more registered hemp growers than any other region in the state.

“There’s significant interest in Southside Virginia, particularly among tobacco growers who are looking to add a crop to what they’re doing,” Williams said.

For years, several other states have allowed farmers to grow hemp for the manufacture of CBD products. But Virginia farmers were barred from doing so until lawmakers approved House Bill 1839 in February.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law on March 21. Thanks to an emergency clause, it took effect immediately.

The legislation comes on the heels of the 2018 federal farm bill, which established a regulatory framework for the commercial production of hemp. HB 1839 conforms Virginia’s hemp laws to match the provisions of the federal bill.

The Southern Virginia Hemp Co., a farm in the town of Jarratt straddling Greenville and Sussex counties, is expanding its operations to meet the demand for CBD products. The company plans to grow between 75 and 150 acres of hemp this year and aims to hire 40 additional employees to work on the farm this summer.

Wayne Grizzard, owner of the Southern Virginia Hemp Co. and Virginia Homegrown Botanicals, said the new laws could have a positive impact for farmers across the commonwealth, especially for tobacco farmers who have been hit hard by tobacco tariffs levied against the United States by China.

“One of my partner’s farms was for tobacco. He lost all three contracts this year because of the tariffs,” Grizzard said. “Some of the farmers have been forced to grow hemp because they don’t have anything to replace it.”

Since colonial times, Virginia farmers — even George Washington — have planted hemp, using the fiber to make rope and other goods. Historian estimate that by the mid-18th century, Virginia had 12,000 acres cultivated for hemp. Marijuana and hemp were both banned in the 1930s under the Marihuana Tax Act, however. (And yes, that is how the law spelled marijuana.)

Now, Grizzard, once a vegetable farmer, has converted his entire farm to hemp.

“When we first started growing, everybody kind of turned their nose up because it’s cannabis,” Grizzard said. “Once they started realizing that everybody’s getting into it and there’s money involved, they started singing a different tune.”

Until now, Virginia’s hemp industry has failed to keep pace with neighboring Kentucky and North Carolina. Both states have been eyeing hemp as an economic driver for several years.

In 2019, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture approved 1,035 applications to cultivate up to 42,086 acres of industrial hemp, as well as 2.9 million square feet of greenhouse space for hemp cultivation.

North Carolina has 634 licensed farmers growing hemp on about 8,000 acres and 3.4 million square feet of greenhouse space.

Grizzard said the next step for hemp in Virginia is still up in the air. He said the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services must submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture “because the USDA has taken over all states’ hemp programs.”

“As long we’re there to fight, battle and voice our opinions as farmers and business owners, we need to stick together and figure out what we need,” he said.

Grizzard and other farmers are concerned about regulations that could stifle their production and overall business model.

“They could come up with some crazy laws that go against everything we’re doing,” he said. “You never know — there’s always that chance.”

One of the Southern Virginia Hemp Co.’s most popular products is hemp extract oil — cannabidiol. CBD by itself does not cause a “high,” but it has gained popularity as a treatment for a wide range of ailments.

According to Peter Grinspoon, contributing editor of Harvard Health Publishing, CBD has been used to treat chronic pain as well as some diseases that more familiar medicines have failed to help or significantly alleviate.

“CBD has been touted for a wide variety of health issues, but the strongest scientific evidence is for its effectiveness in treating some of the cruelest childhood epilepsy syndromes, such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome,” Grinspoon wrote in a blog post last year.

“CBD is commonly used to address anxiety, and for patients who suffer through the misery of insomnia, studies suggest that CBD may help with both falling asleep and staying asleep.”

As Grinspoon notes, a lot of the support for CBD comes from testimonials and anecdotal evidence. There has been a lack of formal medical research because CBD supplements are not approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

CDB is the second most active ingredient in cannabis after tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the principal psychoactive constituent. Hemp also contains a small amount of THC — but not enough to produce a “high.”

Marketing CBD could just be scratching the surface in regard to medicinal components of the hemp plant.

Now that derivatives of hemp are legal, other cannabinoids besides CBD can be extracted from the plant as long they remain below the 0.3% THC threshold, Grizzard said. These other chemical extracts include cannabigerol, cannabinol and cannabichromene.

“Every single plant we grow has a different profile. They all have different cannabinoids in them,” Grizzard said.

“Some of them are higher in CBD; some have high CBG, CBN, CBC. There are a lot of different chemicals in that plant. There’s a lot of unknown of what these chemicals do for people.”

The Southern Virginia Hemp Co. hopes to find whether different cannabinoids help with specific ailments. Whether a flash in the pan or the sign of a new wave of medicine, CBD and hemp products have gained popularity over the past couple of years.

“It’s the doctors, the pharmacists, the physical therapists — they’re giving recommendations to people to take this stuff,” Grizzard said. “It’s not me.”

Hate Crimes in Virginia Jump Almost by Half

By Jayla Marie McNeill and Ben Burstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia recorded more than 200 hate crimes in 2017 — up nearly 50% from the previous year, according to the latest data from the Virginia State Police.

That surge, along with the neo-Nazi rally that left a counterprotester dead in Charlottesville two years ago, prompted state Attorney General Mark Herring to propose legislation to address the problem. However, all of the bills died in this year’s General Assembly.

The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”

According to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, 7,175 hate crimes were reported across the U.S. in 2017. About 60% of those crimes were related to race, 21% to religion and 16% to sexual orientation.

In Virginia, hate crimes jumped from 137 in 2016 to 202 the following year, according to the Virginia State Police. Virginia had more hate crimes in 2017 than during any year since 2008.

Of the 202 hate crimes committed in 2017:

§  89 (44%) were racially motivated

§  44 (22%) were religiously motivated

§  38 (19%) were related to sexual orientation,

§  20 (10%) were related to ethnicity

§  11 (5%) were motivated by bias against disability

Herring has been concerned about the issue for several years. In 2016, he launched his “No Hate VA” initiative, which included creating a website and holding discussion groups across the state to address the rise in hate crimes.

“I’m putting these ideas forward and convening these roundtables because it’s time for action,” Herring stated in a press release.

“I will do everything I can and work with anyone who wants to ensure that all Virginians are protected from hate and violence, no matter what they look like, how they worship, where they come from, or who they love.”

In August 2017, a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville turned deadly after James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, injuring dozens of people and killing Heather Heyer. Herring then amped up his fight against hate crimes and white supremacist groups.

In 2018 and again this year, Herring called on the General Assembly to pass laws dealing with hate crimes. His 2019 legislative agendaincluded:

§  Updating Virginia’s definition of “hate crime” by adding gender and sexual orientation.

§  Allowing the attorney general to prosecute hate crimes across multiple jurisdictions.

§  Prohibiting paramilitary activity such as “drilling, parading, or marching with any firearm or explosive or incendiary device.”

§  Banning firearms from public events.

§  Banning firearms from individuals who have been convicted of a hate crime.

Virginia defines a hate crime as “any legal act directed against any persons or property because of those persons’ race, religion or national origin.”

Unlike the federal definition, Virginia’s definition of a hate crime does not include gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. (In its annual statistics, the Virginia State Police categorize offenses according to the federal definition.)

Legislation to expand Virginia’s definition of a hate crime was carried by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington. SB 1375 was killed in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee on an 8-6 party-line vote, with Republicans voting against the bill.

Democratic Sens. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth and Creigh Deeds of Bath County sponsored the legislation to prohibit paramilitary activity.SB 1210 sought to charge individuals with a Class 5 felony if “a person is guilty of unlawful paramilitary activity if such person assembles with another person with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons by drilling, parading, or marching with any firearm or explosive or incendiary device or any components or combination thereof.”

The bill cleared the Senate Courts of Justice Committee on a 7-6 vote but died in the Senate Finance Committee.

In all, 10 bills before the General Assembly this year attempted to address hate crimes. Seven of the bills were defeated in the House of Delegates and three in the Senate.

For example, two identical bills were introduced to let local governments prohibit firearms at public events: HB 1956 by Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, and SB 1473 by Deeds. Both measures aimed to authorize “any locality by ordinance to prohibit the possession or carrying of firearms, ammunition, or components or any combination thereof in a public space during a permitted event or an event that would otherwise require a permit.”

Both bills died in their chamber of origin.

Despite the lack of legislative action, advocacy groups across Virginia are working to help victims of hate crimes. Assistance ranges from counseling to lawyer referrals.

Herring’s “No Hate VA” includes resources for victims of hate crimes as well as advice on how to report a crime.

The website encourages victims to immediately report hate crimes to the police and to their local FBI office. The FBI has an online form at https://tips.fbi.gov

A Run-in with Hate: One Man’s Story

What started as a normal evening hanging out with friends took a quick turn for Richmond resident Phillip Sampson. As Sampson was walking down the street with a friend, a stranger approached. Sampson, who describes himself as having an outgoing personality, went to greet the passerby with a friendly “Hello!”

Before the words came out, Sampson was struck across the chest with a fist to his shoulder, knocking him back, while slurs were shouted at him.

“Expletives start flying out, and he starts cursing at me and yelling, and I’m like ‘what is going on?’” Sampson said.

The individual, who Sampson later found out is his friend’s brother, continued to yell at him and his friend before trying to break into the friend’s car. Still in shock over the situation, Sampson went to sit in his car and wait for the police to arrive.

Sampson identifies as gay and believes that was the motive behind the incidents. Having never been in this type of situation before, he was relieved when police arrived within minutes.

He said the two officers who arrived handled the situation professionally and took time to make sure he was OK. After telling the police what happened, Sampson said he was surprised by the compassion and genuine concern expressed by the officers.

“They walked me through what my options were and provided contact information so that I could reach out if I needed anything,” Sampson said.

He considers himself lucky that he was not seriously hurt but feels others in similar situations might not be as fortunate.

Sampson said that he did not need to utilize any victim resources, but he is glad to know that they are available to others.

“I was happy to see what was available to me had I needed them,” he said. “It’s comforting to know that there is help out there for those who really need it.”

White Supremacy Movements Spark Rise In Religion-based Hate

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Vandals spray-painted 19 swastikas on the walls of the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia last October. A young woman leaving a mosque with her friends in Sterling, Virginia, after nightly prayers in the summer of 2017 was raped and killed. Someone scrawled “F*** God & Allah” across a Farmville mosque in October 2017. Later that year, a Fairfax teacher pulled off a Muslim student’s hijab in front of her class.

“These events aren’t isolated,” said Samuel J. West, a doctoral student of social psychology and neuroscience at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They’re happening in conjunction with a well-documented rise of activity of the white power movement and white supremacist organizations.”

In Virginia, hate crimes include illegal, criminal or violent acts committed against a person or property on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity. But often, such offenses are not classified as hate crimes. Because it’s hard to assess intent, it’s rare to be charged with a hate crime.

“The bar is pretty high for that conviction of ‘hate crime,’” said West, whose research focuses on the development of aggressive behavior across populations. “You not only have to be proven guilty of intent, but you also have to be proven of a specific kind of intent … not only are you the one who attacked them, you attacked them because they’re queer or black or Muslim.”

Tangible forms of intent for religiously based hate crimes can be anything from social media posts expressing hatred for the specific targeted group to verbal slurs yelled when committing the hate crime.

But if intent can’t be proved, offenses that may involve bias aren’t considered hate crimes. A case in point: In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2015, three Muslims were shot dead by a white man in their apartment over an argument about a parking spot in the complex. The case was classified as a parking dispute.

West said classifying acts like the Chapel Hill shooting as a parking dispute are a reflection of the nation’s judiciary system.

“The U.S. legal system is absolutely created by white men,” West said. “And it certainly makes sense that it would favor them, especially in these cases.”

Because of how hard it is to prove intent, several episodes of religiously motivated violence are often labeled “bias incidents” by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group that collects data on religiously motivated hate actions and crimes.

“Not only are incidents like those increasing, but the violent nature of those incidents is also increasing,” said Zainab Arain, CAIR research and advocacy manager.

In its 2018 Civil Rights Report, CAIR found nearly 2,600 anti-Muslim-based bias incidents in 2017 — a 17% increase from the previous year. Almost half of those took place within the first three months of the year.

That rise parallels a 23% national increase in religiously motivated hate crimes against any religious group — the second-highest number of hate crimes based on religion. The highest number of religiously motivated hate crimes was recorded in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks.

Virginia State Police recorded 44 religion-based hate crimes in 2017, the latest year for which data are available. That was almost double the 23 religion-based hate crime the previous year.

Of the 44 offenses in 2017, half were anti-Jewish, and eight were classified as anti-Muslim. White men were the largest group of offenders for all hate crimes in Virginia.

Arain said the number of hate crimes is likely higher than what reports show for two reasons: underreporting due to fear of retaliation and inaccuracy of FBI data.

“The FBI does collect it only from law enforcement agencies, and law enforcement agencies are not required to report it to the FBI,” Arain said. “Many law enforcement agencies don’t event collect hate crime data in their own municipalities.”

As hate crimes and bias incidents on the basis of religion sharply increase, Arain said, a few factors are at play.

“This across-the-board rise in nativist movements is playing a role in increasing religious discrimination and religious-based hate crimes,” she said, mentioning a slew of nativist campaigns around the world, including the Chinese cleansing of Uighur Muslims.

When it comes to the U.S., Arain said she considers President Donald Trump a “white supremacist.” She said his election has contributed to rising hate.

“That emboldens people who share the same beliefs or ideas and have similar biases and prejudices to act out on their ideas and commit and perpetrate these hate crimes targeting various religious minorities,” she said.

In conjunction with rising hate-fueled violence, domestic hate groups have also increased. There are more than 1,000 hate groups in the U.S. — the most the nation has seen more than in two decades — according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Thirty-nine of those groups call Virginia home.

West called these groups “terrorist organizations.”

Hate crimes and acts of terror do overlap. There is, however, one characteristic that separates the two.

“A hate crime doesn’t have to be politically motivated,” said David Webber, assistant professor in VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. “But an act of terrorism does.”

While there isn’t a standard definition of “terrorism,” the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations defines it as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Recent incidents like the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the church bombings in Sri Lanka are classified as acts of terror since they were fueled by political motives.

Hate crimes are also punishable by law, while domestic acts of terror are not. International acts of terror in the U.S. or by U.S. citizens, however, are punishable under U.S. law — for example, pledging allegiance to ISIS or al-Shabaab.

Webber referenced the car attack at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville as an example of domestic terrorism labeled and punished as a different crime. An avowed neo-Nazi, James Alex Fields Jr. was convicted of murder for driving into a group of counterprotesters and killing Heather Heyer.

“When he used his car to kill that person in Charlottesville, he was never charged with an act of terrorism,” Webber said. “Even though by a definition of terrorism, he was involved in an act of political violence for political reasons, and he killed someone for it. We call that an act of terrorism.”

But since acts of domestic terrorism aren’t punishable by law in the U.S., Webber said, Fields was charged with a hate crime. On March 27, Fields pleaded guilty to 29 counts of hate crimes — one resulting in Heyer’s death and 28 in connection with injuries to other people.

Both hate crimes and acts of terror are forms of aggression. But aggression is not always expressed as physical violence.

“There are many forms of aggression,” said West, a doctoral student who researches the topic. “You’ve got your run-of-the-mill physical violence, your verbal aggression … then you get into ‘mark your territory’ with things like instrumental violence or relational violence.”

Simple examples of instrumental violence on the basis of religion would be vandalizing the side of a mosque or defacing a Jewish cemetery.

“Most people are not very violent and don’t really like to be unless someone has provoked them or attacked them or offended them in some way,” West said. “That phenomena (of violence and aggression) is one that is so inconsistent with much of human nature.”

But there are reasons why people are drawn to acting out aggressively.

Webber, who researches violent extremism, identifies three key factors why individuals are drawn toward extreme violence and hate-fueled aggression: needs, narratives and networks — “the three N’s” as he calls them.

“People become extremists because they’re striving to fulfill an important psychological need that is universal for all of us,” he said. “The need to feel significant, to feel like you’re valued, to feel like you’re respected.”

Webber said people drawn to extreme violence — whether it be a hate crime, terrorist attack or another form — see an aspect of “heroism” in their actions. This is amplified by the ease of creating communities through social media, he said.

“You used to have to meet with people secretly, talk to them or they have to find a poster on the street,” Webber said. “Now, they can log online and see everything. It expands your reach, the potential recruitment pool that you have. You can put information up and people can read it instantly. And you can draw people into a cause really quickly.”

Recruitment for hate groups outside of social media still exists. White supremacist propaganda — in the form of leaflets handed out on college campuses, flyers, rallies and other events — increased 182% in 2018, according to research conducted by the Anti-Defamation League.

Adding to the hate targeted at specific religious groups is how news outlets portray members of these communities.

“A large contributing factor is likely the negative coverage in the media of certain religious groups,” said Raha Batts, imam of Masjid Ash-Shura in Norfolk, Virginia.

Batts said Western media outlets portray Islam as a “religion of terror.”

West said media bias likely plays a significant role in the dehumanizing of certain outgroups.

“Individuals of different races are treated much differently by the news media,” he said. “A more heinous crime could be committed by a white person, and those [news] articles often are quick to refer to mental illness as being the primary motivation or a primary factor at play.”

But if the perpetrators of violence are non-white, the media raise the specter of terrorism and ties to extremist groups, West said.

Batts is no stranger to bias incidents. A few years ago, he and his family stayed in a hotel in Norfolk before moving to the area permanently. After checking into the hotel, his wife passed a group of men who Batts said had been drinking outside of the building.

“One of them was terribly angry at just the sight of my wife,” Batts said. His wife dresses in niqab, a full-length veil that covers her face. “He began acting kind of erratic. He had a beer bottle, and he slammed the beer bottle on the ground.”

The other men stopped him from approaching his wife, Batts said. But she felt the hostility.

“They were military guys, and they served in Afghanistan together,” Batts said. “This particular person, he had a problem with Muslims.”

Batts said negative media coverage played a role in the bias incident he and his wife experienced.

“I spoke to the young man for some time,” Batts said. “Just explained to him that we’re not terrorists, we’re not anti-America. We’re not your enemy.”

Other faith leaders have recognized the spike in hate crimes and acts of terror against their communities.

“Hate crimes have always committed against us; it’s just a fact of being a Jew,” said Rabbi David Spinrad of the Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. “It’s not a new phenomenon.”

Nearly 60% of hate crimes perpetrated across the U.S. in 2017 were anti-Jewish, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League. Between 2016 and 2017, anti-Jewish hate crimes rose by 57%.

On Saturday, authorities said, a man with an assault rifle opened fire in a synagogue in a suburb of San Diego, California, killing one person and wounding three. The man has also been charged with arson at a nearby mosque.

Spinrad said interfaith dialogue and solidarity is the best combatant to rising hate.

“This is big — this has so much momentum,” Spinrad said. “The importance of the relationship of American Jews and American Muslims … I can’t overstate that it is huge. They’re coming for you, and they’re coming for me.”

Amid negative news coverage of the Muslim community, Batts echoed Spinrad’s thoughts on interfaith dialogue and building community.

“It’s our job,” Batts said. “We can coexist with one another, and we can work together. There will be certain things that you believe that I don’t necessarily believe. But we can still be good to one another, we can still be kind to one another. We all have the same goals in mind.”

Demystifying Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy

By Serena Fischer, Capital News Service

Recent programs such as Hulu’s “The Act” and the HBO documentary “Mommy Dead and Dearest” have introduced audiences to a dangerous and often overlooked phenomenon: Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy.

It is a mental health problem in which a caregiver causes an illness or injury to a vulnerable person – often a child. The disorder is difficult to diagnose and treat. Here are key facts about Munchausen syndrome by proxy, or MSBP.

What is it?

The symptoms of MSBP manifest as child or elder abuse, depending on the circumstances. Officials at the National Institutes of Health describe MSBP as “a special form of child abuse in which an adult repeatedly produces symptoms of illness in a person under his/her care.”

Health professionals distinguish MSBP from Munchausen syndrome, a condition in which people intentionally harm themselves or purposely self-induce illness to satisfy a desire to be cared for. With MSBP, the perpetrator (often a mother) will inflict such symptoms on a child or elder as a way to inspire sympathy from others.

The methods used to garner such attention from others can range from simple lies about an illness to actual physical harm — even poisoning — of the victim.

Health officials say the victim may have been initially healthy but face the risk of becoming seriously ill or even dying in the care of someone with MSBP.

Studies cited by the NIH report a mortality rate between 6% and 10% for MSBP victims, making it one of the “most lethal forms of abuse.”

The current medical term for such an illness is Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another, although it is more commonly referred to as MSBP. The phenomenon is relatively rare in the U.S. — making up just 1,000 of the approximately 2.5 million cases of child abuse reported annually.

Health experts said it is notoriously difficult to identify and properly treat Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy. People with the disorder are known to be great liars and master manipulators.

One method they use is to alter medical tests and results to make it seem as if the person in their care is sicker than they truly are. People with MSBP can get away with this, health experts say, because they often are familiar with medical terms and concepts.

This could explain why many cases of abuse caused by people with MSBP can go undetected by medical staff and law enforcement for long periods of time.

Online organizations such as the Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy Survivor Support and Awareness Group on Facebook provide those affected by MSBP with a community to vent and to heal.

Cases in Virginia

Two cases of MSBP involving young mothers in Virginia have been publicized in recent years. In both instances, the perpetrator was arrested on child abuse charges.

One case involved a 23-year-old woman whose 3-year-old son was being treated in 2016 at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk for “ongoing medical issues.”

The woman was arrested after video surveillance from her son’s room showed the young mother allegedly detaching medical equipment being used to give the boy vital medicine. The judge overseeing her case said there was reason to believe the woman gave doctors false information about her child’s medical records.

Earlier this year, 29-year-old Elizabeth Malone admitted to purposely poisoning her 5-year-old son with syringes of her own blood while he was being treated at Inova Fairfax Hospital last spring. She said she did so because she “liked the way staff responded to him once he was bleeding.” Video footage from a security camera shows Malone injecting blood into her son’s IV line and tracheostomy tube.

Had she not been caught, according to doctors, it is likely that her child would have died from the injections, which resulted in high fevers and infections. Malone, who has two other children, will be sentenced in July.

Gypsy Rose Blanchard: Stranger than Fiction

Such an illness may seem too bizarre to be true, but the disorder can result in major consequences, for both the caregiver and patient. No case may demonstrate this better than the conviction of Gypsy Rose Blanchard for the murder of her mother Dee Dee.

The Blanchards, who lived in Greene County, Missouri, were the subject of “The Act” and “Mommy Dead and Dearest.”

Dee Dee Blanchard’s MSBP was reportedly so severe that she forced her daughter Gypsy to use a wheelchair, despite knowing that the girl could walk without difficulty.

Dee Dee lied to Gypsy about her age, telling her she was 14 when she was actually 18 or 19. She also told doctors Gypsy had the mental capacity of a 7-year-old. This allowed the mother to keep Gypsy under her control for as long as possible.

Dee Dee reportedly used manipulation and medical jargon to keep her daughter powerless. She shaved Gypsy’s head and told her, and others, that she had leukemia. As a young girl, Gypsy’s salivary glands were removed at the insistence of her mother, and the child required a feeding tube.

Dee Dee also made Gypsy use a breathing machine while she slept. This combination of feigned illnesses rendered Gypsy a hostage in her own home.

After conspiring with a man she met online named Nicholas Godejohn, the two came up with a plan to murder Dee Dee. Godejohn stabbed Dee Dee to death before the pair fled to his Wisconsin home and were soon tracked down by the police.

Godejohn was found guilty of first-degree murder in 2018. He will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Gypsy pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2016. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison and will be eligible for parole in 2024.

6 Businesses Win Funds to Address Coastal Flooding

By Kal Weinstein and Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Six businesses will receive $1.5 million in funding as part of the first RISE Coastal Community Resilience Challenge.

With the winning funds, the businesses will create innovative technologies, services and workforce development programs to help communities along Virginia’s coastlines adapt to impending climate change.

The winners, which will receive between $160,000 and $310,000, were chosen from a pool of 51 applicants, Gov. Ralph Northam announced last week.

“As we continue to look at new ways to address the growing challenge of extreme weather events and sea level rise,” Northam said, “these six businesses will be leading the charge to develop, test and demonstrate cutting-edge products and tangible solutions to improve the resilience of our coastal communities and mitigate the growing risks to Virginians, especially in our Hampton Roads region.”

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded Virginia $120.5 million through the National Disaster Resilience Competition for solutions to combat sea-level rise in the Hampton Roads region. From that award, HUD provided $5.25 for the creation of RISE, a Norfolk-based nonprofit that provides resources and practical solutions for businesses in coastal communities.

The Coastal Community Resilience Challenge is the first initiative created by RISE. It received $1.5 million from the Resilience Innovation Fund.

RISE’s executive director, Paul Robinson, understands the magnitude of the work the organization is doing.

“Massive infrastructure projects take years and billions of dollars,” Robinson said. “By developing the Hampton Roads region as a hub of resilience innovation for entrepreneurs, we can accelerate investment in affordable and scalable solutions and establish Hampton Roads as ground zero for the resilience economy.”

Last November, Northam issued an executive order aimed at improving Virginia’s resilience to sea-level rise. It seeks to limit the harmful impacts of flooding, extreme weather events and wildfires.

Virginia officials have called the executive order one of the most significant actions by any state to improve resilience and provide protection and relief for natural disasters.

Adm. Ann Phillips, a special assistant to the governor for coastal adaptation and protection, praised the efforts of the RISE organization.

“Thanks to the hard work and success of RISE, these six entrepreneurs bring creative solutions across a range of today’s needs for our coastal communities, which will help make us more resilient as we prepare for our climate-changed future,” Phillips said.

RISE will continue to work with the six businesses, two of which will relocate from out of state to the Hampton Roads area.

The winners of the Coastal Community Resilience Challenge are:

  • Building Resilience Solutions, which will work on alternative flood resilience retrofit methods for older and historic structures against various flooding conditions.
  • Constructis Energy, which will facilitate the patenting of technology that harnesses kinetic energy from traffic to provide power to services that clear flooded roadways.
  • GROW Oyster Reefs, which will work on oyster reef restoration. This would improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and help combat flooding by creating an organic seawall.
  • InfraSGA, which will build urban retrofit bio-retention systems that will decrease stormwater flooding while reducing design, construction, operation and maintenance costs.
  • Landscape Resilience Partnership, which will expedite the adoption of green infrastructure through the growth of its workforce training program. Its goal is ensuring that Hampton Roads has a network of skilled workers to design, install and maintain nature-based solutions.
  • Resilient Enterprise Solutions, which will provide financing, insurance and home-raising as a single source. In addition, the company will establish the Home Raising Training Academy in Hampton Roads.

More information about the winners and the next competition cycle can be found at www.riseresilience.org.

Virginia Coastal Towns Brace for Rising Sea Level

By Kal Weinstein and Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

WACHAPREAGUE, Va. — The tide is high, but this seaside town is holding on.

As the owner and operator of Seaside Eco-tours, Capt. Meriwether Payne ferries passengers from the Wachapreague Town Marina to the barrier islands just beyond the marshes of the shoreline village. The nature surrounding Virginia’s Eastern Shore is the heart of her business, but the rising sea level and the resulting increase in coastal flooding are threatening Payne’s excursions.

“There seems to be more and more days when we have to walk through water to get to the dock or have to move to a dock other than the town marina to pick up customers,” Payne said.

The Nature Conservancy of Virginia hosted a community event last month to discuss the impacts of sea-level rise in Accomack County, which encompasses the northern half of Virginia’s Eastern Shore and the approximately 200 residents of Wachapreague. At the meeting, Payne said it’s difficult getting customers to her boat during high tide.

Residents heard from the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission and staff from the Nature Conservancy, who spoke about planning for and responding to climate change. However, some on the Eastern Shore are skeptical about the severity of the issue.

“You will find that there are a large percentage of people on the shore that do not think anything is going to affect them in their lifetime — particularly older folks,” Payne said.

The effects of these environmental hazards are apparent more than ever on Tangier Island, which sits in the Chesapeake Bay. It has lost 67 percent of its landmass since 1850, with much of the remaining landmass expected to be underwater within the next 50 years, forcing residents to abandon their homes.

Cedar Island, in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Wachapreague, is one of many barrier islands guarding the coasts of Virginia. It is a frequent destination on Payne’s tours.

For decades, the island housed dozens of residents who built homes on the land. But like Tangier, the sea slowly claimed the beaches and surrounding marshland. Some homes were lost as well. Other homeowners took it upon themselves to uproot their houses and move them inland where they would be safe. The last house was removed from the island in 2015.

Also residing in Wachapreague is the Eastern Shore Laboratory of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The lab acts as a station for teaching as well as a site for research. While it exists primarily to study coastal ecology and marine life, the scientists there are well aware of the changes going on around them.

Richard Snyder, the lab’s director and an Eastern Shore resident, said the rise in sea level is nothing new for coastal areas of Virginia.

“Sea level has never been static. It’s always been going up and down,” Snyder said. “Now, it’s just matter of how well we adapt to it.”

The institute is changing in response to the rise in sea level, much like the residents of Cedar Island. They’re in the beginning stages of a building campaign that would move a number of administrative and research buildings inland to an area known as the “Wachapreague Highlands” because it is slightly more elevated than the surrounding area. Other buildings will be lifted and placed on stilts so they can withstand flooding that threatens their foundations.

In 2012, VIMS completed the new Seawater Laboratory in Wachapreague. With an eye toward the future, the lab was built to withstand a 13-foot storm surge. Snyder said it’s the safest building in hundreds of miles during a flood.

Snyder acknowledged that building and development in areas that are likely to be affected by flooding and sea-level rise are still occurring at an alarming rate. While some people are preparing for the worst, others are not as mindful.

“We need to be planning, and we need to be addressing these issues,” Snyder said. “But there are people going the exact opposite direction — still promoting building and investment in infrastructure in areas that in 50 years may not be viable.”

Everyone has a stake in the issue — even if they don’t own property on the coast.

“Now we have backed and invested in development in areas that flood by providing federal flood insurance,” Snyder said. “And we all now are on the hook for billions of dollars of infrastructure that’s at risk because the government has supported it and allowed loans and development in areas where honestly, we probably should never have built.”

Besides VIMS, other researchers are tracking environmental changes. They include a federal project called the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

The program recently issued its Climate Science Special Report. The study shows that globally, sea level has risen roughly 7-8 inches since 1900, with about 3 inches occurring since 1993. The report projects that sea level will rise an additional 4 to 8 inches by 2030.

Recent projections from the VIMS Center for Coastal Resources Management approximate a possible “extreme” sea-level rise on the Eastern Shore between 4.5 and 7 feet by the year 2100. That is three to four times the expected global average.

Of the roughly 15,000 homes in Accomack County, officials estimate that more than 7,700 are less than 5 feet above sea level and are therefore at a greater risk of flooding. Nearly $900 million worth of property — including churches, schools and medical facilities — are also in the range of the estimated extreme sea-level rise, according to an analysis by Climate Central, a nonprofit research group funded by private foundations.

In 2017, Virginia received a $120.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to combat sea-level rise in Hampton Roads. The funds helped create a nonprofit group called RISE, dedicated to solving environmental problems facing coastal communities.

Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam announced $1.5 million in funding for six winners of the first RISE Coastal Community Resilience Challenge. The winners will use the money to develop innovative products, services and workforce development programs designed to aid communities in adapting to climate change.

“The commonwealth is well-positioned to create and implement innovative adaptive concepts that will ensure the viability and economic vitality of coastal areas for future generations,” Northam said.

Citizens like Snyder and Payne remain optimistic in the face of not only rising waters but also skepticism many Americans have voiced about climate change.

“I think you’ve got a lot of people that don’t believe it,” Payne said. “Fortunately, my boat floats on top of whatever the sea level rises to.”

Campaign to End Plastic Straw Use Comes to VCU

By Jasmine Cruz, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As national discussion swirls around the environmental impact of plastic, a group at Virginia Commonwealth University recently launched a campaign hoping to end plastic straw use on campus.

Dr. Ching-Yu Huang, an instructor in the VCU Department of Biology, brought the “Kick the Straw” campaign to campus. Her husband, Dr. Justin Ellis, previously started the campaign at Longwood University, where he is a faculty member and assistant director of Clean Virginia Waterways.

“Faculty can tell you what to do, but if [the] student doesn’t have the motivation to do that, it’s not going to work,” Huang said. Her students are leading the project, though she remains present for questions and assistance.

The campaign has partnered with Simply Straws, a California-based company that manufactures reusable straws.

Huang hopes people will establish lifelong habits by making a small change in their daily lives, such as refusing to use plastic straws.

“Our world has become accustomed to using plastic straws in exchange for a minimal convenience,” said Katherine Peterman, a VCU student helping lead Kick the Straw. Peterman wrote over email that the campaign is to educate people about sustainability and to become aware of the waste they create.

VCU is the third Virginia university to join the Simply Straws Pledge Against Plastic Straws Campus Challenge. Old Dominion University and Longwood also are participating in the campaign.

According to the Simply Straws website, the Campus Challenge pairs the company with schools and asks students to pledge to stop using plastic straws. The campaign includes K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities. There is a prize of 100 custom-etched glass straws to the school that has the most pledges by the end of April.

When a student pledges, Simply Straws sends them a free glass straw. Over a person’s lifetime, the use of a reusable straw prevents 30,000 straws from ending up in a landfill or waterways, according to the company.

Clean Virginia Waterways sponsors events to remove litter from rivers and beaches, Ellis noted.

“Most years, since we’ve been working with citizens … straws is consistently in the top 10 items that we find during those cleanups,” Ellis said.

He said Aramark, a food-service and facility management company serving more than 5 million students, including those at Longwood and VCU, gave 500 metal straws as gifts to commuters who bought a meal plan.

Aramark and Ellis are currently working together to end the use of plastic straws at Longwood campus dining locations, either by everyone carrying a reusable straw or cafeterias offering paper straws.

Ellis said the Aramark director told him Longwood could be free of plastic straws by next fall. In 2018, Aramark announced a single-use plastic reduction strategy that included phasing out plastic straws and stirrers. The food-service giant predicted its efforts would create a 60% decrease in plastic straws by 2020.

All of VCU’s 20-plus dining locations provide plastic straws.

“Our campaign will eventually try to get VCU food vendors on board,” Peterman said. She said campaign members have reached out to local businesses that offer alternatives, such as paper and corn straws, to receive guidance on how to get other businesses to participate.

Kick the Straw campaign events take place throughout the month. The next event is Party for the Planet, which will be held Saturday at Historic Tredegar, 500 Tredegar St.

To take the pledge not to use plastic straws, visit the VCU registration pagehttps://simplystraws.com/pages/VCU.

Global Expert Panel Discusses Worldwide Politics

By Benjamin West, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Experts from around the world gathered for a panel discussion at Virginia Commonwealth University to educate the public about the strengths and weaknesses of worldwide election systems, their similarities and differences to U.S. political procedures, and thoughts on the betterment of global democracy.

“Electoral Systems Around the World” hosted four speakers who were from or had extensive knowledge about countries such as Uruguay, South Africa, Zambia and Colombia. The panel took place in VCU’s Globe Building, an experimental hybrid of both residential and educational facilities.

The speakers at Wednesday’s event were:

  • Lefate MaKunyane of Johannesburg, South Africa, a Humphrey Fellow, or visiting scholar, whose studies of interest include youth development programs, gender-based violence and mental health and substance use prevention.
  • Marcelo Martoy of Montevideo, Uruguay, a Humphrey Fellow and legal advisor to the National Drug Board of the Presidency of the Republic of Uruguay, where he is helping to redirect money confiscated from drug trafficking back into the community in the form of substance abuse prevention, education and other civic programs.
  • Sombo Chunda of Zambia, a government doctoral student, and former country manager in Zambia with Diakonia, a Swedish nonprofit humanitarian organization. Her interests and areas of study include democracy, economic development, gender equality and conflict resolution.
  • Michael A. Paarlberg, a VCU political science assistant professor and expert on Latin American politics. His research interests include immigration and labor law.

To open, the speakers each outlined the generalities of their country’s political system. Some results were standard and uniform: All of the countries have five-year political cycles. Voters consist of both men and women who are 18 years or older. No country has monetary or property ownership restrictions.

There are some stark differences among the countries represented by the panel. While most of the discussed counties have low voter turnout, at or around 50%, Martoy revealed that, because of its mandatory voter laws, Uruguay recently saw a national election with more than 90% of citizens participating.

In Uruguay, according to Martoy, nonvoters not only face a fine, but they also are denied registration for public schools, and public workers cannot receive some payments, among other things.

Following country-by-country breakdowns, the speakers outlined unique characteristics of their political systems, garnered from their research.

MaKunyane spoke of the movement to change the South African constitution to “address the imbalances of the past” when the white minority drove black people from large swaths of land — an imbalance that he said is still felt today.

There is rising tension even in the U.S., where MaKunyane said Fox News has been framing the issue as a lynching of white people. And young people, generations removed from Nelson Mandela, are becoming increasingly militant, he said.

“Unfortunately, if we don’t address this challenge, it’s going to turn into a serious civil war,” he said.

Paarlberg spoke about voter fraud, an issue often vehemently discussed by the U.S. public during election season, and how some countries deal with it. He said that in Colombia, election authorities count up the number of people who voted and the number of ballots in the box. When there is a discrepancy, they take out the extra number of ballots at random and burn them on the spot.

Chunda, who has devoted much time and effort toward including women in Zambia’s politics, spoke at length about the systematic challenges women face when approaching candidacy.

“The system is structured to favor men,” she said.

Chunda has worked with nonprofits urging Zambia’s political parties to devote 50% of their ticket to women, though she stressed that it is institutional inequalities — such as lack of education and exclusive child-rearing roles — that truly bar women from the podium.

Ultimately, the panel was asked what they thought of the U.S. political system.

“My personal impression is that the United States has many contradictions,” Martoy said.

He pointed to institutions such as democracy, freedom of the press and civil rights as positive examples, but also mentioned voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering and disproportional influence of large corporations — sentiments echoed by most of the panel.

The consensus was that listening and learning about politics on a global scale will help combat systemic injustices — and even unite seemingly distant people.

“I think that there’s need for civic education even here in the U.S.,” Chunda said.

Your Personal Guide to Richmond’s Thrift Shop Scene

By Arianna Coghill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Many consumers are turning to thrifting as an eco-friendly alternative to shopping at the mall.

Numerous resale boutiques and thrift shops have popped up in the Richmond area over the past few years, giving people more options than ever. With warm weather creeping upon us, now is an opportune time to update your summer wardrobe.

From Short Pump to Midlothian to Carytown, here are a few of the area’s many thrift shops.

If you’re looking for a place that has all the latest fashions for half the price, look no further than Rumors Boutique and 723 W. Broad St. Rumors has a blend of modern and vintage-style clothing, carrying everything from the Instagram-famous brand Fashion Nova to authentic pieces straight from the 1980s.

When it comes to sustainability, the store no longer hands out plastic bags to customers. Rumors even sells metal drinking straws that have become increasingly popular in the past year.

Buffalo Exchange is perhaps the newest addition to Richmond’s thrift store lineup, having opened in August. The chain was started in Tucson, Arizona, in 1974 and now has over 50 locations across 21 states.

The Buffalo Exchange at 3140 W. Cary St. is its first in Virginia. When it comes to style, the store's options are a bit more vintage-inspired than Rumors’. If that’s your brand of strawberry jam, go for it.

If you’re looking for something more on the refined, less grunge side, Ashby is the place for you. If you enjoy brands like ASOS and Free People, then Ashby at 3010 W. Cary St. might be your perfect match. It was voted one of the best clothing consignment/resale stores and best women's boutiques by readers of Richmond Magazine in 2018.

If you’re looking for something on the more mature side, try Ashby’s sister store, Clementine at 3118 W. Cary St. While Ashby is more directed at younger, more casual demographic, Clementine feels chicer, selling designer brands such as Chanel and Lululemon. With springtime in full swing, bright pastel colors and bold prints are very much in style. If that’s what you’re searching for, Clementine will have you covered.

Uptown Cheapskate, like Buffalo Exchange, is a nationwide chain. It began in 2009 in Utah and eventually spread across the country. The company has two locations in RVA: at 1403 Huguenot Road in Midlothian and at 4338 Pouncey Tract Road in Short Pump. If you enjoy Urban Outfitters, Uptown Cheapskate is a good match. Plus, Uptown claims its clothes are as much as 70 percent cheaper than mall prices.

Richmond Growing Faster Than State and Nation, New Data Shows

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — So far this decade, the city of Richmond has increased in population more than neighboring suburban counties — and at twice the growth rate of the state and nation, according to population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Since 2010, Richmond’s population has grown 12% — adding almost 24,500 people. The increase is due to the birth rate (the city had about 8,600 more births than deaths) as well as people moving to Richmond from parts of the U.S. (almost 10,200) and from other countries (about 5,400).

Of the 133 counties and cities in Virginia, only 12 have grown more than Richmond has this decade. Richmond has grown more than Chesterfield County (10.2%), Hanover County (7.4%) and Henrico County (7.3%).

The population of the Richmond metropolitan statistical area — which consists of Richmond, 13 counties from Amelia to New Kent, and the cities of Petersburg, Hopewell and Colonial Heights — increased 8.1% since 2010. In 2018, the area’s population topped 1.3 million, according to the Census Bureau’s estimates.

The Richmond region is the nation’s 44th most populous metropolitan area — up from 45th in 2010. In recent years, the Richmond area edged past the Louisville/Jefferson County metro area in Kentucky and Indiana.

Virginia’s overall population has increased by 6.5% this decade. It has surpassed 8.5 million — up more than 500,000 since 2010.

The entire U.S. population is about 327.2 million — an increase of 6% this decade.

Loudoun County is the fastest-growing locality in Virginia. Its population has jumped more than 30%, to almost 407,000, since 2010.

Nationwide, only 19 counties have grown more than Loudoun County this decade, the data showed.

Other fast-growing localities in Virginia are Manassas Park and New Kent County (up 21.5% since 2010), Fredericksburg (20.5%) and Falls Church (20.3%).

While the population is growing in Northern Virginia and the Richmond area, that is not the case in other areas of Virginia. In the western and southern regions of the commonwealth, the population has dropped significantly:

  • The City of Emporia, 11 miles north of the North Carolina line, has had a population decrease of about 800 people or 13.6% — the greatest percentage loss in the state this decade.
  • Buchanan County, bordering West Virginia and Kentucky, lost almost 2,900 residents — an 11.9% decrease.
  • Tazewell County, also in southwestern Virginia, saw its population drop by more than 4,200 residents, or 9.3%.

All in all, the Census Bureau’s data showed that 72 localities in Virginia gained population and 61 lost population since 2010.

The bureau conducts a national census every 10 years; it is getting ready to do a headcount in April 2020. In addition, the agency issues population estimates every year. The estimates are based on a variety of sources, including surveys and tax data.

Virginia Trails Nation in Placing Foster Children With Relatives

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Only 7% of Virginia’s foster children are placed with relatives, according to a new study — well below the national average of 32%.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation tracked changes in foster care in each state from 2007 to 2017. For Virginia, the data snapshot contained some good news: There were fewer children in foster care, and fewer foster children were placed in group homes.

But many experts say that ideally, foster children should be placed with relatives — and on that measure, Virginia did not make any progress over the 10 years.

“We want for children to have a family that is their family forever — whether it’s their family of origin or if their foster family turns into an adoptive home,” said Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst at Voices for Virginia’s Children, a nonprofit advocacy program.

Over the 10-year period, Virginia was successful in decreasing the percentage of foster children in group homes from 23% to 17%. That means more children have been fostered in family settings — but just not with their own relatives. The data also shows that older youth are more likely to be in group homes.

Virginia was also successful in reducing the number of children entering foster care. In 2007, there were 7,665, compared with 4,795 in 2017.

“While we have reduced the number of children overall in foster care, black children in particular continue to be overrepresented both in family-based settings, but also particularly in group homes,” Gilbreath said. “We really need to spend some time and energy in the state and figure out what we can do that will specifically get at the racial inequities in the foster care system.”

This year’s Virginia General Assembly passed SB 1339 to bring Virginia in compliance with federal foster care regulations, including the federal Family First Prevention Services Act enacted in 2018. The act encourages states to keep children in family-based settings by redirecting federal funds to support services for at-risk children and their caregivers.

Virginia’s new law also aims to increase the number of children placed with family members by notifying relatives when a child enters foster care.

Voices for Virginia’s Children joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation in calling on child welfare systems to shift resources from group placements to family settings.

“They feel more loved and protected, and it’s a more normal experience for that child,” Gilbreath said. “But also, they’re more likely to achieve permanency that way, and that’s what we really want for kids.”

The organizations contend that the support system for other foster children and caregivers should also be available to relatives who take in children. This includes financial support and access to mental health support. Often, family members take in a child through what is known as kinship diversion, meaning they take in a child without using the foster system and don’t receive the same support as caregivers in the foster program.

The children’s advocacy groups also called for expansion of kinship navigator programs. These programs aim to help relative caregivers navigate the complex child welfare system. Under the Family First Prevention Services Act, additional federal funds have been made available for kinship navigator programs.

“Virginia has already started to take advantage of these funds but could adopt the programs statewide,” Voices for Virginia’s Children stated in a press release.

The organization and the Annie E. Casey Foundation also asked for increased access to services that would help stabilize families. By aligning legislation with the Family First Prevention Services Act, funds will be accessible for family support services to prevent at-risk children from entering the foster system.

“It’s going to provide the first-ever opportunity to have money used to prevent entry into foster care,” Gilbreath said. This funding will go toward programs that offer mental health support for the child and the caregivers, substance abuse treatment and in-home training in parenting skills for the family.

“If we were able to step in and provide that family support — we’d be able to make that family successful,” Gilbreath said.

Think Tank Warns Against Raising Cigarette Taxes

By Andrew Gionfriddo, Capital News Service

 

RICHMOND -- A new study says local cigarette taxes have adverse effects on low-income citizens and small business owners and rarely raise as much money as government officials project.

The Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy released the study, which was funded by Philip Morris USA, as the Richmond City Council considers Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposal to impose a local cigarette tax of 50 cents per pack.

“Raising cigarette taxes is not a ‘cure-all’ for resolving budget problems,” said Michael W. Thompson, the institute’s chairman. He said the study found:

  • Over the years after raising cigarette taxes, jurisdictions rarely meet their revenue projections.

  • While it is common for the tax increase to produce more income for the locality in the first year, the income tends to decrease in following years.

  • When cigarette taxes increase, convenience stores and smaller grocery stores see their overall sales on non-tobacco items decrease.

Virginia imposes a cigarette excise tax of 1.5 cents on each cigarette, equating to 30 cents per pack and $3 per carton. Over 90 localities in the commonwealth impose a local cigarette tax.

Stoney said a tax of 50 cents per pack on cigarettes would yield $3 million a year in additional revenue for the city budget. His proposed levy is between the 22-cents-per-pack tax in Ashland and the $1.26-per-pack tax in Alexandria.

Councilman Parker Agelasto proposed an 80-cents-a-pack cigarette tax last year that did not pass, and which the mayor did not support.

“The counties surrounding Richmond have not changed their cigarette taxes so they will be the big winners if City Council adds 50 cents to a pack of cigarettes,” Thompson wrote in a column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Henrico and Chesterfield County do not currently impose a local cigarette tax.

Thompson said the tax increase would hinder small businesses in multiple ways.

“Smokers will seek out the best prices for cigarettes, and those will be found a few blocks away in Henrico or Chesterfield counties,” Thompson said.

The Thomas Jefferson Institute’s report cites 2014 data from the National Association of Convenience Stores, drawn from over 3,400 shopping visits to such businesses.

Management Science Associates, a database management company, estimated tobacco was the fourth most often purchased item, with tobacco purchases made on 21% of the visits, according to the report.

The study showed that cigarette smokers visit convenience stores more frequently than nonsmokers and are more likely to buy products such as gasoline and beverages.

Thompson testified before the City Council last year when it was considering raising the cigarette tax.

“I gave them the documents and made my pitch, and they said, ‘Thank you very much -- we’ll read it later.’ They’re disparaging the small guy.”

The Thomas Jefferson Institute says its data also shows lower-income citizens suffer the most from the tax increase.

Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the institute noted that households earning less than $10,000 per year in the South spend 5.8 percent of their income on tobacco, while households in the same region earning more than $70,000 annually spend only .26 percent of their income on tobacco products. That’s $580 versus $182, respectively.

The Virginia Department of Health study, “Virginia Adult Tobacco Survey 2016-2017,” determined that in Virginia, “the greatest percentage of smokers earn the least amount of money.”

Some local business owners have mixed feelings about the cigarette tax increase.

R.E. Watkinson, owner of Lombardy Market in Richmond, said he is not against raising the tax.

“Of course it’s part of the business, but I don’t want my grandparents or other kids smoking,” Watkinson said.

Watkinson does not think the tax would affect the habits of people who already smoke. “People who are addicted are still going to smoke,” he said.

Watkinson said that when he opened his store, cigarettes accounted for about half of all sales. Now, he estimates they make up around 10%.

He said he believes the cigarette tax would slow down the rate of new smokers. Smoking as a whole has been decreasing nationally, but not in Virginia.

The commonwealth’s relationship with tobacco dates to colonial times. Altria and its Philip Morris USA subsidiary, which produces Marlboro and other cigarette brands, is based in Henrico County.

“Tobacco is such a huge part of Richmond’s history and economy,” said Stephen Hader, a senior fellow with the Thomas Jefferson Institute. “I think Richmond adopting a tobacco tax would have some symbolic impact as well.”

Despite its long history with tobacco, Virginia has been at the forefront of a national push to decrease teenage usage of vaping and tobacco products.

On July 1, Virginia will raise from 18 to 21 the legal age to purchase tobacco and nicotine products.

More than 10 other states have adopted or plan to enact similar laws, according to tobaccofreekids.org.

E-cigarettes such as Juul are currently not taxed by the city or state.

Citizens Expand Efforts to Preserve Historically Black College’s History

By Arianna Coghill, Capital News Service

LAWRENCEVILLE, Va. — “Challenge by choice” was the motto of Saint Paul’s College, which closed in 2013 because of financial problems and declining student enrollment.

Now the citizens of Lawrenceville are living up to that motto — by taking up the challenge of collecting and preserving artifacts documenting the 125-year history of the historically black college.

Lawrenceville residents and other supporters of Saint Paul’s College have opened a museum to showcase the memorabilia — including an original copy of “Adventure in Faith,” an autobiography written by the Rev. James Solomon Russell, who was born enslaved, became an Episcopal priest and founded the school in 1888.

The year-old museum has been such a success that it is ready to expand to a new location.

“We’re trying to create a place that could be a home to the alumni and that they can identify with,” said Bobby Conner, vice chairman of the project.

Conversations about how to keep the college’s memory alive began in 2012 — the year before the school shut its doors.

“We saw the writing was on the wall,” said Sylvia Allen, a member of the conservation effort. Thus the James Solomon Russell-Saint Paul’s College Museum and Archives was born.

James Grimstead is the museum’s chairman and director. He and Conner discussed the idea with Saint Paul’s for a year before officials decided to discontinue the school.

Because there was much uncertainty about whether the college would remain open, Conner was hesitant to raise the subject — but he knew that it was important.

“What could’ve happened is that the university could’ve closed on June 30 (2013) and the creditors could’ve come on July 1,” Conner said. “If the creditors would’ve got involved, this museum would’ve never have happened.”

The school, which was on the National Register of Historic Places, was founded as Saint Paul Normal and Industrial School and then became Saint Paul’s Polytechnic Institute in 1941. The name was changed in 1957 to Saint Paul’s College to reflect its liberal arts curriculum.

    

The college’s demise followed pressure from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which revoked Saint Paul’s accreditation because of “lack of financial stability” and other reasons.

The nonprofit museum opened last April in downtown Lawrenceville, a town of about 1,400 people in Brunswick County, which borders North Carolina. It quickly filled with artifacts dating to the late 1800s. They range from a 1922 college guestbook to a 1973 student newspaper and include decades-old class photos, sports trophies and banners.

According to Grimstead and Conner, if they had not rescued these artifacts, the mementos likely would have remained in the campus’ abandoned buildings, which have weathered over time. Problems like mold would have seriously damaged many of the items.

    

    

Several alumni such as former professional basketball player Antwain Smith have visited the museum — not only to travel down memory lane but also to reflect on the classes before them.

Teya Whitehead, who graduated from Saint Paul’s College in 1998, was devastated when she first heard that the school was closing. She still finds it to be a difficult pill to swallow.

But with the establishment of the museum, the happy memories of her college days will stay preserved.

“My favorite memory was the overall camaraderie that we had together. Many of my lifelong friends are still in contact with me today,” Whitehead said. “The school was a very family-oriented environment.”

With the sheer amount of memorabilia, the museum’s current location has become cramped. There are plans to move the museum to the former Saint Paul’s College Student Center, which now serves as the Brunswick County Conference Center. The grand reopening is scheduled for Aug. 10.

“I never imagined while moving that stuff that we’d be where we are today,” Conner said. “I was just getting it off campus to protect it.”

Attorney General Mark Herring supports bill to make D.C. the 51st state

By Kal Weinstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is urging support for federal legislation to make Washington, D.C., the 51st state.

Herring joined 19 other state attorneys general -- all Democrats -- in issuing a “first-of-a-kind” statement in favor of the idea.

The statement was issued Monday just ahead of D.C.’s April 16 Emancipation Day celebration. It cited the holiday as a reminder of limits on the District’s freedom and autonomy.

“The District’s over 700,000 residents work hard, raise families and pay the highest federal taxes per capita, and yet they are deprived of the fundamental right to participate meaningfully in our representative democracy,” the statement read.

U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting delegate representing D.C. in Congress, introduced H.R 51 in January. More than 200 House members are  co-sponsoring the proposal.

Holmes has previously introduced legislation to make D.C. a state; however, this marks the first time that state attorneys general across the country have united to support the idea.

“The District’s residents deserve equal voting rights and autonomy under the law. We support Statehood for the District of Columbia and urge passage of H.R. 51 to accomplish this goal,” the statement read.

In the statement, Herring announced he is pleased to stand beside Karl Racine, the attorney general for D.C., and 18 other state attorneys general to support the initiative.

“Washington, D.C., already acts as an important state in so many ways, and it is well past time that their contributions to our country are reflected in statehood,” Herring said. “District residents are hardworking, taxpaying Americans who deserve to have their voices heard and their votes counted.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has also expressed support for Holmes’ proposal.

“Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton has been a tireless voice on this important issue, and her introduction of H.R. 51 is a critical step in righting this historic wrong,” Pelosi said.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, head of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, has pledged to hold a hearing on the bill later this year. If it passes, D.C.’s addition as a state would add two senators and one representative with full voting rights to Congress.

Those who oppose the nation’s capital earning its statehood argue that it would inherently create a conflict of interest for legislators who serve in D.C. to represent constituents back home in their respective states. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison stated that if D.C. were to become a state, its voting members would wield higher power than other states through its proximity to Congress.

In 1971, passage of the 23rd Amendment gave members of the District votes in the electoral college. If renewed support fails to pass H.R. 51 when it comes up for a hearing later this year, the federal government will continue to maintain jurisdiction over the capital city, just as it has since its founding in 1790.

Horse Racing Returns as Gaming Parlors Open in Virginia

By Emma Gauthier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Horses soon will race again at Colonial Downs, and Virginians will be able to bet on them and play slots-style machines in a casino-like setting at four other locations across the commonwealth.

The Colonial Downs Group will resume horse racing at its track in New Kent County and offer off-track betting at the other sites under the brand Rosie’s Gaming Emporium.

The New Kent County racetrack, between Richmond and Williamsburg, closed in 2014. Colonial Downs plans to resume horse racing there in August.

But before then, Virginians will have a chance to gamble -- on historical horse racing gaming machines at the Rosie’s Gaming Emporium locations. The slots-style machines allow players to bet on horses from past races and also bet against other opponents.

The Colonial Downs Group is set to open a Rosie’s at the New Kent County track on April 23. The company will also open gaming parlors in Richmond, Hampton, Chesapeake and the Roanoke County town of Vinton by the end of 2019.

Rosie’s will generate $25 million in state taxes annually and create 800 jobs statewide, according to Colonial Downs spokesman Mark Hubbard. The Richmond location will employ about 150 people and open in June.

Mayor Levar Stoney has endorsed the venture, which will be in South-Central Richmond.

“We’ve had tremendous support from Mayor Stoney and city leaders,” Hubbard said. “The community in the 9th District is excited about us opening soon, and we’re very excited about bringing a new form of entertainment and fun to Richmond.”

The five Rosie’s facilities will include a total of 3,000 historical horse racing gaming machines. The bets feed into a collective pool that players can win, with various purses.

“The revenues that we generate through the machines will help fund purses at the race track and a portion of the revenues will go to the horse racing industry,” Hubbard said.

The collective purse falls under a type of gambling known as pari-mutuel betting. This type of gaming machine was created in Kentucky to revitalize the horse industry and generate revenue year-round, Hubbard said.

Using the machines, players select three horses (the winners of historical horse races), place a bet and then watch an animated re-enactment of the horses competing. The company calls the machines a “competitive substitute for traditional casino style games.”

The launch of Rosie’s Gaming Emporium coincides with a push in the General Assembly to allow casinos in the commonwealth.

On March 21, Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law a bill that may eventually loosen the reins on casino gambling. SB 1126, sponsored by Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, calls for a study of casino gaming in the state, which must be completed by Dec. 1.

Going forward, localities would be required to pass a referendum to allow casino gaming. The Virginia Lottery Board would regulate the casinos. The board cannot issue any gaming licenses before July 1, 2020.

The new law also gives the Virginia Racing Commission control of racing with pari-mutuel wagering.

The Colonial Downs Group will participate in the study, Hubbard said.

Many Virginians are excited by the idea of casino gambling, but some organizations are worried about a negative impact on communities.

The Virginia Council on Problem Gambling believes that more people will develop gambling-related problems when given more opportunities to gamble.

“As our legislators seek to expand gambling in Virginia, they need to do so responsibly by first assessing the risks and rewards, which hopefully the gambling study the governor is calling for will in part provide, and also setting up safeguards to protect the public from harm,” said the council’s president, Carolyn Hawley.

The Family Foundation, a nonprofit Christian organization, has similiar reservations and also believes that crime increases near casinos. The Colonial Downs Group believes its gaming centers will improve quality of life and possibly decrease crime.

The Rosie’s in Richmond will replace a vacant Kmart lot off Midlothian Turnpike near Chippenham Parkway. Police regularly patrol the area because of crime, Hubbard said.

“We’re going to add a lot of lighting, surveillance and people coming and going, which will deter criminals,” Hubbard said. “When you bring a fun, lively, very well-lit and secure entertainment facility, that disperses crime.”

Virginia student-athletes receive further concussion protection

By Andrew Gionfriddo, Capital News Service

RICHMOND --  A new state law will require Virginia schools to regularly update their policies on educating coaches, student-athletes and parents about concussions and on when student-athletes can return to play after suffering such an injury.

Under the law, which takes effect July 1, the Virginia Board of Education must collaborate with brain-injury and other experts to biennially update state guidelines on policies related to concussions. Using those guidelines, local school boards then must revise their policies and procedures on how to handle suspected concussions received by student-athletes.

The law is the result of House Bill 1930, which was sponsored by Del. Richard “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton, and passed unanimously by the General Assembly.

“Concussions can be a serious medical concern and should not be taken lightly,” Bell said. “It is critical that we keep our guidelines up to date to ensure that we protect the health and well-being of our student-athletes, and that is what HB 1930 aims to do.”

Gov. Ralph Northam signed the legislation into law on Feb. 22, saying it builds on efforts he advocated when he served in the Virginia Senate in 2013.

“As a state senator, I introduced and passed legislation directing the Board of Education to develop these guidelines and requiring local school divisions to create policies for identifying and handling suspected concussions,” Northam said.

“Del. Bell’s legislation will strengthen this practice by requiring the board’s guidelines and divisions’ procedures to be updated biennially, which will help account for new research and enhanced knowledge.”

Among the stakeholders working with the Board of Education are the Virginia High School League, the Virginia Department of Health and the Brain Injury Association of Virginia.

“We are fortunate to have open lines of communication and the ability to share feedback with one another,” said Chris Robinson, assistant director for athletics for the VHSL.

He said that over the past decade, there has been “a heightened awareness of the inherent long-term effects of head injury have increased.”

“This has created the need to change many rule codes to protect athletes at all levels from these types of injuries,” Robinson said.

An estimated 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports-and recreation-related concussions occur each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Brain Injury Research Institute says high school athletes who suffer a concussion are three times more likely to suffer a second.

Football accounts for more than 60 percent of concussions suffered in organized high school sports.

Sports leagues at the professional, collegiate and high school levels have already taken strides in improving safety measures and helmet technology for contact sports to mitigate concussions. Some experts say rule changes in certain sports might be the next step in protecting players.

Patrick Bowdring, 23, who is majoring in interdisciplinary studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said he received more than one concussion while playing lacrosse at West Potomac High School in Fairfax County.

Bowdring said student-athletes should take such injuries seriously -- and make sure they have fully recovered before resuming their sport.

“Your brain and your future are so much more important,” he said. “If I were to go back, I would have sat out even longer. It’s your life; it will have an effect on you

Northam Signs Proclamation Recognizing Victims of Violent Crimes

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam signed a proclamation Tuesday declaring April 7-13 as Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Northam emphasized that it is important to treat crime victims with fairness, dignity and respect.

“We have come a long way in understanding the needs of victims since Virginia’s Code was amended to include victims’ rights in 1995,” Northam said. “Victim advocates make it possible for those affected by crime to begin healing, and Crime Victims’ Rights Week is a tremendous opportunity to recognize the important work of the dedicated professionals that serve victims of crime, helping them to access critical support and reclaim their lives.”

Northam, joined by Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran, signed the proclamation at an event sponsored by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. DCJS provides more than $60 million in funding and technical support to 420 crime victims projects and agencies across Virginia.

Crime Victims’ Rights Week was established in 1981 to raise awareness of the needs of crime victims and to honor those working to assist them. This year’s theme — Honoring Our Past, Creating Hope for the Future — was chosen to recognize the progress being made in serving victims, and to thank those who have worked for years to help victims of crime.

Smaller victim assistance programs and advocacy groups work with larger organizations to expand public awareness of crime victims’ rights and available services. Those organizations include the Virginia Department of Health, the Virginia Department of Social Services, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, the Virginia Victims Fund, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, and the Virginia Victim Assistance Network.

“We continue to strive for an innovative and collaborative approach to support victims of crime in our communities,” Moran said. “Partnerships among victim advocates, public safety, and community organizations are essential to ensure the complex needs of victims are met.”

Additional information about victims’ services is available on the DCJS website at www.dcjs.virginia.gov.

CBD and THC-A Oil Dispensaries Set to Open Across Virginia

By Ben Burstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginians with a doctor’s recommendation soon will have access to CBD and THC-A oil dispensaries throughout the state. The Virginia Board of Pharmacy has approved five companies to open the dispensaries -- one in each of the commonwealth’s five health service areas.

The dispensaries will provide CBD and THC-A oils to approved patients only. The Board of Pharmacy met in private to review 51 applicants before selecting five: PharmaCann, Dalitso, Dharma Pharmaceuticals, Green Leaf Medical and Columbia Care. Background checks will be conducted before each company receives a license.

There are no scheduled opening dates for the dispensaries, but it's possible they could be operational by winter.

"Under the terms of their conditional approval, they all have to be open by the end of 2019," said Diane Powers, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Health Professions. The companies do not have to operate on any other specific timeline.

The dispensaries will offer welcome relief to patients suffering from a range of health problems, according to medical cannabis advocates. Legislation passed in 2018 allows medical practitioners to issue a certification for CBD or TCH-A oils for patients who would benefit from such substances. Dispensaries are only able to provide up to a 90-day supply at a time.

Stephanie Anderson of Richmond is considering CBD oil as an alternative treatment for her son's ADHD. She wanted her son to have safe and legal access to CBD products.

"I've been hesitant to try CBD from online sources, so the idea of having in-state pharmaceutical processors puts my mind at ease," she said.

PharmaCann, founded in 2014, currently operates medical marijuana facilities in five other states and is licensed to operate in three more. Its dispensary will be in Staunton in Health Service Area I, which stretches from Fredericksburg to the Shenandoah Valley.

Dalitso is a Virginia-based company that will specialize in the production of CBD and THC-A oils. It is in the process of obtaining approval to open a processing facility in Prince William County. Dalitso will open a dispensary in Manassas, which will serve Health Service Area II, including Fairfax and Alexandria.

Dharma Pharmaceuticals will open its dispensary in Bristol, covering  Health Service Area III, which encompasses southwest Virginia. Dharma is an international producer of medications for hepatitis, cancer and other diseases.

Green Leaf Medical will set up its dispensary in the Swansboro neighborhood in city of Richmond, serving the surrounding area south to Emporia in Health Service Area IV. Green Leaf is a producer of CBD and THC-A oils, along with other medical marijuana products available in almost 30 locations in Maryland.

Columbia Care will be based in Portsmouth and provide CBD and THC-A oils in Health Service Area V to residents in the Tidewater area to the Eastern Shore. Columbia Care is an international cannabis-focused health-care company with locations in 13 states, Puerto Rico and the Mediterranean nation of Malta.

Each dispensary submitted a $10,000 application fee and must pay an additional $10,000 per year to renew its license.

State Health Officials Take Steps to Ban Conversion Therapy

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Virginia Board of Psychology has issued a letter of guidance stating that conversion therapy should be considered a violation of standard practices -- which LGBTQ advocates hope is a major step toward halting the practice.  

Conversion therapy, which aims to change the sexual orientation, gender expression or identity of LGBTQ individuals, has been banned in several states across the U.S. but is still legal in Virginia.

The current debate to outlaw conversion therapy goes back to the state Capitol. In recent years, Democratic lawmakers have proposed bills to outlaw the practice, but the legislation repeatedly died in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. As a result, state agencies are taking the matter into their own hands.

Several of the Virginia licensing and regulatory boards that form the Department of Health Professions are working to end conversion therapy on minors by licensed professionals.

The Virginia Board of Psychology released a guidance document in January that states practicing conversion therapy could result in “a finding of misconduct and disciplinary action against the licensee or registrant.” The board also opened an online forum in February for public comments. That forum, which closed on March 20, received over 500 responses, with a vast majority in favor of the ban.

The Board of Counseling is still currently accepting public comments on a similar document in an online forum open until April 17.

“Conversion therapy is a disgusting practice which seeks to invalidate the LGBTQ community,” stated Zachary Whitten, a proponent of the ban, in the online forum. “I see no way Virginia can proclaim itself an inclusive commonwealth . . . if it allows such a horrifying and undignified practice.”

LGBTQ advocates also support the ban and claim that such therapy inflicts psychological

harm on minors -- even leading to depression and suicide.

“Virginia law already prohibits discredited and unsafe practices by licensed therapists,” stated Equality Virginia, an advocacy group working on behalf of the LGBTQ community in Virginia. “The guidance will curb harmful practices known to produce lifelong damage to those who are subjected to them and help ensure the health and safety of LGBTQ youth.”

Fifteen states and Washington, D.C. have implemented regulations and licensing restriction against conversion therapy.

The Virginia Catholic Conference does not support the proposed ban, claiming it exceeds governmental authority by giving the board “sweeping authority to sanction counselors’ speech and engage in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

The VCC also argues that the ban violates First Amendment rights and undermines traditional family roles.

Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, contends that “parents are closest to their children’s challenges.”

“They know their unique needs and are in best position to identify solutions. ... Just as parents must give consent for over-the-counter medications, field trips, and extracurricular activities, they have the constitutional right to guide mental health care for their children,” Caruso stated.

Many national health and medical associations have dismissed the practice as ineffective and damaging to the health of LGBTQ youth. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from a list of mental illnesses.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, conversion therapies “lack scientific credibility and clinical utility” and could “increase [the] risk of causing or exacerbating mental health condition in the very youth they purport to treat.”

Almost a year ago, the Virginia Academy of Clinical Psychologists submitted a statement to the Virginia Board of Psychology, which stated that “conversion therapy should be considered as a violation of standards of practice in that rendering such services is considered to have real potential of jeopardizing the health and well-being of patients.”

Virginia Preparing for 75th Anniversary of D-Day

By Emily Holter, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The National D-Day Memorial is gearing up for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, an amphibious invasion considered the largest and most successful in history — and often cited as a turning point in World War II.

The celebration will begin on Tuesday, June 4, and end on Sunday, June 9.

Several events lined up throughout the week include a reception showcasing artwork drawn by soldiers during the war, aerial tributes flown by vintage planes, live footage from the joint ceremony in Normandy, concerts and a parade.

All events will take place in Bedford, about 140 miles west of Richmond. The National D-Day Memorial was erected there in honor of American D-Day veterans, including the 19 young men from Bedford who died during the invasion.

“Right now, we’re 65 days away but you know, who’s counting?” said April Cheek-Messier, president of the National D-Day Memorial.

The organization has been planning for the anniversary for more than two years and has put $800,000 into the celebration.

“I know for me, I’m extremely excited for this,” said Kirk Cox, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Cheek-Messier pointed out the magnitude of the event and said that every Allied nation during the war will send representatives. About 15,000 people are expected to attend.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in the military in World War II, fewer than 500,000 are still alive, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Cheek-Messier said she would be thrilled to have 50 to 75 veterans in attendance.

The upcoming festivities were discussed at a meeting Tuesday of the Virginia World War I and World War II Commemoration Commission. Cox chairs the commission, which includes state legislators and veterans.

The panel was created by the General Assembly to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I and the 75th anniversary of World War II.

At the commission’s meeting, officials also highlighted recent activities such as:

§  The Profiles of Honor Mobile Tour, which has been bringing an interactive exhibit of World War II artifacts to museums, libraries and historic sites throughout Virginia.

§  “Operation: Digitization,” an effort to scan family photographs or historical artifacts so they can be featured on the commission’s website.

Rusty Nix, the communications manager at Virginia Tourism Corp., said the scanning program is advantageous because the public can access archival information never seen before and people can still hold on to their families memories.

“So far, we have done over 4,600 scans,” Nix said. “We’ve had incredible outreach.”

Officials Seek to Attract Grocery Stories to ‘Food Deserts’

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Reflecting national concerns over “food deserts,” federal and state lawmakers Monday called for legislation to help people in low-income neighborhoods get better access to fresh vegetables and other healthy foods.

The officials discussed food insecurity at a town-hall-style meeting at the Peter Paul Development Center in Richmond’s East End, where poverty is high and full-fledged grocery stores are scarce.

In 2019 in America, “nobody should go to bed hungry at night,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, who hosted the meeting.

“Too often, what we have are communities — urban and rural — where there may be a corner store, but you walk in to that corner store, and you may have large volumes of food, but it’s not healthy food.”

Warner was joined by members of the Virginia General Assembly and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, as well as by staff members of U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin of Richmond. About 60 residents also attended the meeting.

Warner and McEachin, both Democrats, are co-sponsoring federal legislation called the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act. It would provide tax credits and grants to grocery stores, food banks and other organizations that provide healthy foods in underserved communities. Entities would undergo a certification process to qualify for financial assistance.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 37 million Americans live in food deserts. In urban areas, individuals are considered to be living in a food desert if they must travel more than one mile to buy affordable, healthy food. In rural areas, it is considered a food desert if access is 10 miles away.

Under the proposed HFAAA, businesses would apply for certification as Special Access Food Providers. A certified store that opens in a food desert could receive a one-time 15% tax credit. Businesses that have been remodeled or rehabilitated to qualify as grocery stores would receive a one-time tax credit of 10%.

To meet these qualifications, at least 35% of a store’s products must be fresh produce, poultry, dairy and deli items.

Under the HFAAA, grants would be awarded to food banks to cover 15% of the costs of building a permanent structure in a food desert. “Temporary access merchants,” such as nonprofit farmers markets and some food banks, could receive grants for up to 10% their annual operating cost.

State legislators in Virginia have also been pushing to address food insecurity. During this year’s legislative session, a bill to provide funding for the construction, rehabilitation and expansion of grocery stores unanimously passed in the Senate but died in the House of Delegates.

SB 999, sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin and Democratic Sen. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg, would have established the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund and provided $5 million to help approved food providers in underserved communities.

Warner complimented Democratic Dels. Delores McQuinn of Richmond and Lamont Bagby of Henrico for their efforts as well.

“Delores and Lamont and others have been trying to move this issue forward with a series of Virginia-based initiatives,” Warner said. “What Donald (McEachin) and I have tried to do at the federal level is to say, ‘How can we as a federal government provide some additional assistance?’”

Like SB 999 at the Virginia Capitol, the HFAAA before Congress has bipartisan support. Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas is also sponsoring the act.

Richmond residents at Monday’s discussion agreed that work must be done to address food insecurity in Virginia, but many expressed concerns about how the HFAAA would affect the community.

Individuals said they fear that offering incentives to open grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods would lead to gentrification as wealthier people move in and poorer residents are pushed out. Development in disadvantaged communities could lead to higher rents and the loss of small businesses.

Warner said he wants to make sure residents are protected from negative impacts. He said he hopes to “see if there’s a way in my legislation to give recipients an extra benefit if they live in the community.”

Gov. Northam Vetoes Bill Creating ‘School Protection Officers’

By Katja Timm, Capital News Service

 

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam has vetoed a bill to create a new public-employee category called “school protection officers.”

Supporters of the legislation said the officers would help improve security in Virginia’s public schools. But Northam said the bill failed to clearly define the officers’ duties and credentials.

Introduced by Del. Robert Thomas, R-Stafford, HB 2142 defined a school protection officer as a “retired law-enforcement officer hired on a part-time basis by the local law-enforcement agency to provide limited law-enforcement and security services to Virginia public elementary and secondary schools.”

During the General Assembly’s recent session, the bill was approved 53-45 by the House and 26-13 by the Senate.

Virginia law currently provides for two types of officers in schools — school resource officers and school security officers.

In announcing his veto Tuesday, Northam said school resource officers and school security officers “have well-defined duties and responsibilities set forth in the Code of Virginia and are required to meet stringent training standards” administered as part of the certification process carried out by the Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Thomas’ bill did not specify what security services a school protection officer would provide.

It said only that the Department of Criminal Justice Services would “establish compulsory minimum training standards for all persons employed as school protection officers. Such training may be provided by the employing law-enforcement agency and shall be graduated and based on the type of duties to be performed.”

That raised concerns from Northam, who said duties and training could vary greatly from school to school since each local law enforcement agency has different regulations and standards.

As an alternative to school protection officers, Northam noted that his Student Safety Work Group had recommended increased training for school resource officers. Legislators passed and the governor has signed two bills — HB 2609 and SB 1130 — that mandate that all school resource officers must undergo more training.

By approving those bills, the General Assembly endorsed “the position that more, not less, training will better serve Virginia’s students and schools,” the governor’s veto message said.

“Allowing a new type of officer with undefined duties and indeterminate training will not serve to make Virginia’s students and schools safer. Therefore, there is no compelling reason to create school protection officers when Virginia law already provides for two types of trained officers to provide security in the Commonwealth’s schools.”

HB 2142 is one of 17 bills vetoed by Northam. The General Assembly will reconvene next Wednesday to consider overriding the vetoes. It takes a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to override a veto.

Governor Signs Bill Requiring Clergy to Report Child Abuse

By Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — In response in part to the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, Virginia will have a new law on July 1 requiring priests, ministers, rabbis and other clergy members to report suspected cases of child abuse or neglect.

Gov. Ralph Northam has signed into law two bills — HB 1659, sponsored by Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax, and SB 1257, introduced by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier. The measures mandate that religious officials must report any suspected abuse to local law enforcement.

The bills passed unanimously in the House and Senate last month.

Existing state law lists 18 categories of people who must report information to local authorities if they “have reason to suspect that a child is an abused or neglected child.” They include health-care providers, police officers, athletic coaches and teachers.

The new law will add a 19th category to the list of “mandatory reporters”: “Any minister, priest, rabbi, imam, or duly accredited practitioner of any religious organization or denomination usually referred to as a church.”

However, the law will exempt clergy members from the reporting requirement when confidentiality is required by the religious organization, such as anything a priest hears during confession.

A minister who hears about possible child abuse while counseling a parishioner, for example, would not have to tell authorities.

Delaney said she filed her bill after a church in her Northern Virginia district failed to act on a case of child abuse. She said 27 other states have laws making clergy mandatory reporters.

“Members of the clergy are in a role of trust and authority and they should not be held to a different standard than every other professional whose duty it is to protect children,” Delaney said.

Child abuse by clergy has been a national concern in recent years with disclosures that some Catholic priests had sexually abused children and their superiors had covered up the incidents.

Last month, the Diocese of Richmond released the names of 43 clergy members who “have a credible and substantiated allegation of sexual abuse involving a minor.” The Diocese of Arlington released the names of 16 such individuals.

The Virginia Catholic Conference, which represents the two dioceses on matters of public policy, supported the legislation introduced by Delaney and Vogel.

Grier Weeks, senior executive of the National Association to Protect Children, sees Virginia’s new law as a step toward change but also a reflection of how much work is left to do.

“Any action is great, but you shouldn’t need laws for people to do the right thing — especially when protecting children,” Weeks said.

Weeks warned parents that predators are usually those they trust most around their children, not strangers.

“Predators often seem friendly,” Weeks said. “It is important to stay vigilant.”

Northam signed the legislation just days before the start of National Child Abuse Prevention Month on April 1.

To receive reports of sexual abuse of a minor by clergy, the Virginia State Police have a website, www.virginiaclergyhotline.com, and a toll-free hotline, 833-454-9064. Callers may remain anonymous.

Governor’s Amendment Would Ban Using a Phone While Driving

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Drivers in Virginia would face penalties for using a phone behind the wheel under legislation that Gov. Ralph Northam has amended and sent to the General Assembly for approval.

“The time has come for the Commonwealth to implement an effective and fair law to combat distracted driving,” Northam said. “Too many families have lost loved ones as a result of a driver paying more attention to their phone than to their surroundings. This bill, as amended, will be a significant step forward in promoting traffic safety across the Commonwealth.”

The governor amended SB 1768, sponsored by Sen. Montgomery “Monty” Mason, D-Williamsburg.

As approved by the House and Senate last month, Mason’s bill would prevent drivers from holding a handheld personal communications device in highway work zones. Violators would face a mandatory $250 fine.

Northam announced Tuesday that he has revised the bill to extend beyond work zones and prohibit distracted driving on all Virginia roads.

The General Assembly will consider the governor’s recommendation when lawmakers reconvene on April 3.

Current Virginia law prohibits drivers from texting or emailing on the road; however, it is legal to hold a cellphone to check social media and make phone calls. Northam said curbing Virginia’s distracted driving death rates is a priority for his administration.

“Virginia’s traffic fatalities have risen every year since 2014,” Mason said. “Distracted driving caused by cellphone use — whether it’s dialing, texting or checking email — is clearly the reason. I’m proud to be a part of a safety measure that will undoubtedly save the lives of many Virginians.”

The fight against distracted driving in Virginia is not a new battle for legislators.

During this past legislative session, two bills — HB 1811, sponsored by Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick, and SB 1341, introduced by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George — sought to make it illegal to drive while holding a cellphone.

Both bills died when a conference committee could not agree on legislative language during the session’s final days.

In amending Mason’s legislation, Northam recommended that organizations such as DRIVE SMART Virginia and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police develop resources for law enforcement agencies and the general public about the law against using a phone while driving.

The governor also wants to require annual reports on distracted driving violations and the demographics of motorists cited for such offenses.

April will be Virginia’s 13th year of recognizing Distracted Driving Awareness Month. According to the American Automobile Association, 131 people died in 2018 from distracted driving in Virginia. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nine people die daily in the U.S. from roadway accidents involving a distracted driver.

Collins and Stuart both issued statements supporting Northam’s amendment to SB 1768.

“We see too many traffic crashes and tragedies caused by distracted driving,” Collins said. “This is affecting everyone, from road workers to law enforcement officials and first responders trying to keep us safe, to highway workers who are maintaining and improving our roadways. It’s time for us to take action to protect those using our roads in order to save lives in the Commonwealth.”

Stuart added, “It has come to the point where people are so totally engrossed in their phones that they are almost oblivious to the world around them. And that’s just a dangerous recipe on the highway.”

Skill-based Slot Machines Put Vegas at the Corner Bar

By Emily Holter and Benjamin West, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — It sits a few blocks from the bustle of Carytown, under a deep blue awning and the gaze of its mascot — a sunburnt moose holding up a pint with a cocked, toothy smile.

When City Beach is nearly empty, the bar is vast and echoey. It appears to defy physics, a deeper space than the building should be able to handle when viewed from the street.

Past the smokers planted on the front patio and just through the doors stands a little room on the left. When occupied, the room can be loud, with an onslaught of clashing, out-of-time electronic sound effects from four bulky machines. Hands come down hard on buttons, and people yell to each other in frustration — or joy when they win a jackpot.

From the spinning wheels and the colorful cartoon images on the screens to the hands pulling out wallets and feeding in 10s, 20s or even $50 bills, the room looks like a miniature Las Vegas.

The machines look, sound, feel and act like slot machines, which are against the law in Virginia. But these devices are called “skill machines” on grounds that they’re not based entirely on chance. For the present moment, skill machines are 100 percent legal, and they’re popping up all over the commonwealth.

Besides the touch screen, each skill machine boasts two big buttons — easy to press, easy to slam: “Play” and “Ticket.” These let the player spin or cash out.

In the little room, a man named Pierce sat slightly slouched back at the closest machine to the doorway. He declined to give his last name. Batting his hand at the play button as he spoke, his attention stayed trained on the game.

Gambling isn’t new to Pierce. His mother is “a slot grinder,” and his stepfather has skill machines in the Pennsylvania bars he operates.

“So I’ve been playing these for years,” Pierce said.

At this point, Pierce’s machine said he was at $95. He had put in $45 to begin and had been as high as $160, but the “Ticket” button sat unpressed as Pierce kept testing his luck — or skill, depending on your point of view.

He was playing a game called “Pirates” — his favorite on this machine. Different games have different themes, sounds and cartoon garnishes, but in essence, they all are similar: They are all variations on tic-tac-toe, meaning a certain image has to connect across all three rows, for the player to win.

Bets range from 40 cents to $4. The higher the bet, the higher the payout.

Players are presented a set of three-by-three rows and the goal of making a pattern like tic-tac-toe. Each play costs a bet and spins the rows. The hope is to line up at least two of the same images because once the spin is over, you can place a “wild” anywhere on the board to finish the row.

“So here’s another thing about this game,” Pierce said. “You can hit ‘next puzzle’ and see if the next one’s a winner or not.”

The “next puzzle” option feels like a cheat code to some players, and yes, it’s as straightforward as it sounds. At any point, a player can see the results of their next spin, whether they’ll win thousands of dollars or absolutely nothing. Knowing the next puzzle can help players make their decision: pull out or keep playing. But ultimately, the “next puzzle” is only second in an endless line of puzzles, and many players are keenly aware of this caveat. So they keep betting to see what might be around the corner.

This extra piece of information is the argument for why the machines should be called skill machines and not slot machines. It’s why people like Pierce can step into a bar any night of the week and risk some of their cash in hopes of hitting it big.

Short of hitting a jackpot by lining up the three cartoon tiles assigned to the most money, players tend to hope for a “bonus” win. These are specialty tiles that often specifically say “bonus” on them. They can give the player extra spins or queue a simple minigame, such as opening virtual suitcases or spinning a wheel.

Players’ reactions reveal that these types of wins are exciting, and it’s easy to see why. They are much more attainable than the standard jackpot win, but they can still draw some serious money.

After a few minutes, Pierce hit a bonus, giving him 10 extra automatic spins.

“Oh, look!” he yelled, jumping out of his seat to call down the hallway. “Let’s go, we got the big bonus!”

The rows started spinning rapidly, possessed, and people in the room gathered to watch over Pierce’s shoulder.

Pierce excitedly circled the ice in his drink and yelled a few more times, but as the spins started to run out, he calmed down.

“Ah, it’s not going to be anything crazy, man,” he said, with a tinge of disappointment.

The bonus spins depleted, numbers flew to the center of the screen to calculate the winnings: $50, putting Pierce’s overall money in play at $136 and some change.

“I put $45 in. If I cash out now, I’m up $90,” he estimated.

Pierce tapped around on the screen, checking the next puzzle for the bet amount he was playing on. Nothing. Eventually, he pressed the “Ticket” button, and the machine discharged a warm, freshly printed receipt, which Pierce took to the bar and traded for cash.

Soon, somebody else sat at Pierce’s machine. Sure, Pierce had made money, but he hadn’t hit the jackpot. The amount, thousands of dollars, taunted from the screen. It was still anybody’s game.

The legal and corporate perspective

Currently, gambling is restricted in Virginia. State law allows betting on horse races at licensed locations, and charitable gaming, such as a limited number of bingo games and raffles that benefit nonprofit groups.

During the General Assembly’s 2019 session, legislators introduced bills to legalize casinos, authorize sports betting and expand charitable gaming. Most of those proposals failed.

However, skill machines fall into a legal loophole, allowing bars and other establishments to install — and profit from — the devices.

Queen of Virginia Skill & Entertainment, the company that makes the skill machines used in Virginia, says its devices aren’t illegal because there’s an element of skill.

“Our machines’ software take out that element of chance and add skill because, based on the player, they can actually win more money than they put in every single time they play our game,” said Kevin Anderson, the director of compliance for Queen of Virginia Skill and a former enforcement agent for the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority.

The software originated in Pennsylvania, where it went through several court systems, Anderson said. He said Queen of Virginia Skill machines are the only ones checked by a government entity.

Attorney General Mark Herring has not filed a complaint against the skill machines. A spokesperson for his office said Herring will let each jurisdiction decide whether to allow the machines.

“We have our games in almost all jurisdictions in Virginia,” Anderson said. He said the machines are located only in ABC-licensed facilities. That would include bars, restaurants that serve alcohol and gas stations that sell beer and wine.

Anderson said that Queen of Virginia Skill asked the ABC to examine its machines and software and that the agency gave a favorable review.

Officials at the Virginia Lottery also weighed in, saying they are not worried about skill machines. However, when asked whether the machines are legal, they declined to comment.

“We were watching closely as they appeared across the state,” said Virginia Lottery spokeswoman Jennifer Mullen. “As of now, we have no concerns.”

This spring, the Virginia Lottery is adding a feature to its app to allow consumers to play lottery-type games through their phones at any retail location in which they connect through a Bluetooth connection, Mullen said.

Trent Hazelwood, a server at New York Deli and a casual skill machine player, said he believes the new lottery app was designed to compete with the skill machines; however, the Virginia Lottery said there is no correlation.

For restaurants and bars, skill machines can provide a new revenue stream. The hosting businesses keep 40 percent of the money that the machines take in. Thirty percent of the revenue goes to the companies in charge of distributing and maintaining the machines, and 30 percent goes to Queen of Virginia Skill & Entertainment.

The personal perspective on skill machines

According to Brice Slack, general manager at Buffalo Wild Wings on West Broad Street in Henrico County, a community has emerged among skill machine players who move from place to place, hoping to hit a jackpot.

“There’s regulars amongst the Queen machine community that kind of hop from establishment to establishment,” Slack said.

Slack doesn’t believe players will have much luck trying to outsmart the machines.

“It is just a series of spins,” Slack said.

In theory, industry officials say, skillful players should be able to win on any machine equally. It’s the distinction that makes the machines legal and popular.

“Players can WIN every time based on skill & not chance,” Queen of Virginia Skill & Entertainment says in a bulleted entry on its website.

But some people who work with the machines daily aren’t convinced.

“Is it really skill? Not really, no. It’s still chance either way,” said Miles Murdock, a server at New York Deli.

Working just a few feet from his restaurant’s machines, Murdock said he is a frequent player. He even remembers the day they appeared at his workplace. He said his boss framed them as a surprise, a gift of sorts to the employees.

Unlike some of his customers, Murdock plays with extra money — his tips — and he views the skill machines as entertainment. The machines aren’t paying his rent or buying his groceries. They’re just for fun, he said.

“We get a lot of people in here who see it as pretty much a revenue source,” Murdock said. “I’d rather just take the money I earn and count on a sure thing.”

But then again, Murdock said some people are much luckier than he is. They come in, win big and often, and have their own little rituals to keep the money flowing, he said.

Hazelwood, Murdock’s coworker, offered an example.

“I’m just going to tell you about this one guy,” Hazelwood said. “He pushes the buttons a certain way. He taps the screen a certain way. And he is convinced that, like, the way that he taps the button or presses the screen means that it will trigger something.”

At City Beach, Pierce, too, has a ritual: He said he won’t put even dollar amounts into the machines. If he wants to risk about $100, he said, “I’ll put in $105.”

The community of skill machine players can take the game very seriously. At first, some businesses worried about hosting such activities in establishments that serve alcohol. But local businesses have had few problems with skill machine patrons.

“Drunk people and gambling, there’s no way that this can end well,” Murdock remembered thinking when the machines arrived at New York Deli. “However, I was proven wrong.”

Murdock said he occasionally finds parents letting their kids play, which he immediately prohibits — “Participants must be at least 18,” notes a bold, red screensaver as customers sit down to play. Once, a patron told Murdock the machine ate their money.

“Beyond that, we’ve had no problems,” he said. “No disruptive customers.”

Hazelwood described the machines as a “loophole in the law,” and Slack called them “a gray area.”

Virginia has shown reluctance to fully embrace gambling. But at least for these skill machines, those populating bars and restaurants — the servers, managers and people sitting down to play with a drink in their hands — are showing less reluctance.

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