Fearing increase in child abuse due to pandemic stressors, Austin-area foster organizations seek support

A photo of Kate Morsman with her son with a quote that reads, "As soon as this ends, there's going to be a huge need, and we need to be ready for it."
Kate Moses, an adoptive parent in Austin, is working to reattain her foster care license so she can foster and adopt a teenager. She said foster parents will be at a heightened need following the pandemic. (Laura Morsman and Rachal Russell/Community Impact Newspaper)

Kate Moses, an adoptive parent in Austin, is working to reattain her foster care license so she can foster and adopt a teenager. She said foster parents will be at a heightened need following the pandemic. (Laura Morsman and Rachal Russell/Community Impact Newspaper)

Like many other parents, Austin resident Kate Moses is sorting out how to care for her adopted 4-year-old son while COVID-19 precautions keep them cooped up at home. She is also working to reattain her foster license via Zoom so she can foster and adopt a teenage daughter. While Moses is immunocompromised and thus feels cautious during the pandemic, she said she also feels “a great sense of urgency” to complete her training.

“As soon as this ends, there’s going to be a huge need, and we need to be ready for it,” Moses said.

Moses echoes the concerns of many local foster advocates that close quarters and heightened stress put children at higher risk of abuse even as child abuse reporting is down statewide. Teachers and health care providers, some of the top reporters of child abuse, are largely cut off from face-to-face interactions with children, which experts said contributed to the decrease. March saw about 3,000 fewer calls to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services’ statewide child abuse hotline compared to February and about 1,000 fewer than in March 2019. Children’s Advocacy Centers across Texas—which process children who have been reported for possible entry into the foster care system—saw a daily reduction in calls for intake reports of at least 500.

Travis County’s own Center for Child Protection has seen the same phenomenon, with a 39% decrease in referrals for child forensic interviews in March 2020 compared to March 2019 and decreased referrals each week during the month of March.

“Until children are back at school or in extracurricular activities, we are asking our community to continue to keep their eyes and ears open when they are out for walks or at grocery stores. Our children still need us to make those reports when we suspect abuse or neglect,” wrote Amanda Van Hoozer, the chief program officer for the Center for Child Protection, in an email to Community Impact Newspaper.


Preparing for strain

Local organizations that work alongside the state’s foster care system are bracing for the possibility of increased referrals as society gradually reopens. Meanwhile, they also struggle to facilitate placements in an already overcrowded system.

Dripping Springs-headquartered Foster Village, a liaison between the foster system and foster families, has seen this phenomenon firsthand.

“Our Dripping Springs location is actually being utilized as an emergency shelter for kids that have the most significant trauma and they’re having a difficult time placing right now—definitely due to COVID,” Foster Village CEO Chrystal Smith said.

Social distancing requirements and the risk associated with COVID-19 have caused difficulties for organizations such as Foster Village and the DFPS as families hesitate to invite child welfare workers and new children into their homes.

“Right now in a very immediate sense, I think you're going to have someone who maybe wanted to be a foster family saying, ‘Well, maybe now is not the time that I want someone to come into my home,’” said Will Francis, the executive director of the National Association of Social Workers’ Texas Chapter and a member of the Travis County Child Protective Services Board.

Laura Wolf, CEO of CASA of Travis County—an organization that pairs trained adult volunteers with children in the welfare system—said she has been privy to overcrowding already.

“[Child Protective Services] is having some greater troubles in finding placements for kids who are already in the system. We've seen an uptick in the number of kids who are sleeping for one or more nights in the CPS offices,” Wolf said.

At Foster Village, Smith said she too has seen some reluctance on the part of potential foster parents during the pandemic. She has also seen people step up—including Moses, who has worked with Foster Village during the fostering and adoption process for her young son and now with her daughter-to-be as she and her husband work virtually to become relicensed. Moses advises those who are able to use free time to study to become foster parents as well.

“We cannot shut our doors and leave children out there and homeless,” she said.

Like Moses, Hallie Graves, a South Austin resident and single foster parent, said she sees her role as more vital than ever and wishes she had the capacity to take on more kids beyond the toddler currently in her care.

“It will take a long, long time for anything to be back to normal, so I think people should consider how they can help not just this month, but for the next two years,” Graves said. “Even after the economy recovers, we’ll still be seeing the impact of this on the foster care system.”

Offering support

Becoming a foster parent may be the best way to ease an overburdened child welfare system, according to numerous local advocates, but there are other ways to support foster children and foster families struggling with reduced income or access to resources. Particularly in cases when children are placed with family members, guardians can be offered less state aid, giving third-party organizations an important role in filling the gap.

Carrying Hope, which gives packs with essentials and comfort items to help ease children into foster placement, has seen an increase in need for items such as toiletries, underwear and food since Travis County implemented its shelter-in-place order, according to co-founder Mauri Elbel, and invites donations through Carrying Hope’s Amazon wishlist.

Similar organization Foster Angels of Central Texas, which works with the Texas Department of Public Safety to provide needed items and financial assistance for foster families, invites donations through its website.

“There’s been an economic impact because obviously we create a budget for how much rent we’re going to help with and how big our grocery budget is going to be. We’ve had to adjust,” Foster Angels Executive Director Tania Leskovar-Owens said.

At CASA, Wolf cited strong engagement from volunteers, who are now training online and visiting with their appointed children by video instead of in person. Although Wolf said CASA has a class of around 50 volunteers finishing training this week, with 524 volunteers total, there are still around 589 children on CASA’s radar who lack advocates.

Aside from volunteering for or donating to organizations, Moses and Graves said one of the best things the public can do for the foster system is to look out for the health and well-being of foster families in one’s social circle.

“Access to therapy and outside support has been cut off, and when you have a child in your care who has trauma, you need outside support,” Moses said. “When you have a child with trauma, you kind of live in trauma, and it weighs on you.”

Ali Linan contributed to this report.

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