But as schools remain closed through at least early May in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and as stress increases in families grappling with health concerns and financial hardships, local child advocates fear that abuse may go unnoticed and unreported.
“We are very nervous for our kids who are stuck in homes with a perpetrator,” said Kristen Howell, CEO of the Children’s Advocacy Center for Denton County. “One of the things that we know is that teachers are our very best defenders for children. So when our best defenders are sidelined, like they are right now, we get very worried about the number of kids who are stuck in situations where they're being abused right now and can’t leave home.”
A record number of cases
When children make an outcry that a crime has been committed against them, they undergo an interview with law enforcement or Child Protective Services about that crime at the advocacy center.
In March, the center had 113 forensic interviews, the most cases the center has seen in a single month in its 22-year history, Howell said.
“We're actually the place that kids go when they begin their process in the investigation,” Howell said. “And we see the child all the way through mental health services that ensure that the trauma associated with the types of crimes that are committed against the child are something that the child and the family—the nonoffending caregivers—can recover from.”
Most of the cases that the center saw in March happened during Denton ISD’s spring break and, later, when the entire county was under stay-at-home restrictions due to coronavirus.
“It’s remarkable that even still, March was our busiest month,” Howell said.
The number of sexual abuse cases during the month remained steady, but she said there has been a “definite uptick” in the number of severe physical abuse cases the center has seen.
“We know that family stress has really gone up lately as people are stuck in homes and literally can't leave,” Howell said. “Moms and dads can't get a break. And so that combination of stress
and the inability for children to be around other trusted adults makes for a really dangerous situation for some kids.”
The center is working to provide increased parenting support for families already in the system to help them cope with the circumstances they may be facing so that stress does not get too high while they continue to stay at home.
Using technology to stay connected
Although children are not going to school for the next few weeks, many are still in contact with their teachers through virtual learning, which sometimes includes video calls. Howell said the center has been working with local teachers to ensure they are trained to look for any signs of abuse through those video calls with students.
Amanda Brim, the chief communications officer for Lewisville ISD, said although the district is adjusting to a “new normal” in the midst of COVID-19, teachers and other school officials continue to be committed to the health and well-being of their students.
“All teachers have been trained in protocols developed specifically for teachers when conducting virtual or distance learning,” Brim said. “This includes recognizing warning signs as well as a refresher of the mandatory reporting law and resources for families in need.”
Students who want to speak directly with campus counselors can still do so over web phone or web video, Brim said. In addition, the district’s specialized mental health counselors are reaching out to students to make sure they are getting the services they need.
Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Denton County, or CASA, has also had to innovate under the county and state stay-at-home orders, said Debbie Jensen, the agency’s executive director.
CASA of Denton County is a volunteer-based nonprofit in which volunteers are appointed by a court to advocate for abused or neglected children who have been removed from their homes by Child Protective Services.
Jensen said volunteers have been doing everything they can to stay connected with the children by talking over the phone or through video calls.
“It’s important to keep that connection going,” Jensen said. “[With] the children we serve, a lot of [the] time, the family has been through one of the worst times in their lives, or the kids have maybe been removed from their parents and close family members. And during this time, our volunteers can't even visit with the children in person. So it's very difficult.”
The difficulty of the times has not stopped CASA volunteers from finding creative ways to stay connected, she said.
“We had one volunteer videotape herself reading a story for the kids and then [send] it to them. It was a 'Curious George' book. It was wonderful," Jensen said. "And then, we had another volunteer who found out that the teenage kids he works with didn't have computers at home that they could use to do their schoolwork. So he took the initiative to contact the school and get computers for these kids. And then, he helped the parents who were caring for them to get free internet service.”
Preparing for a surge in child abuse cases
CASA is working to recruit more volunteers as it prepares for a potential surge in reports of child abuse and neglect that could come when the stay-at-home orders are lifted and children come into contact with more people who could recognize signs of potential abuse, Jensen said.
“We're bracing ourselves and trying to recruit more people than ever,” Jensen said.
However, the organization’s growing need for volunteers is not new.
In 2019, CASA served 615 Denton County children with the support of 241 community volunteer advocates. It was unable to serve 20% of the children who were removed from their homes that year, Jensen said.
The demand for volunteers is largely a result of rapid population growth in Denton County in recent years, Jensen said. According to the U.S. Census, the county’s population has doubled since 2000.
Jensen said CASA expects to serve up to 700 children this year and will need to recruit 100 new volunteers to keep up. Anyone interested in volunteering for CASA can sign up to go through the virtual training online, Jensen said.
She said it is important for everyone to remember that in Texas, everyone is a mandated reporter of child abuse and neglect.
“Because of the stay-at-home orders, we will be safer from the virus. But we can’t forget these children whose abuse or neglect might not be detected right now,” Jensen said.
To report suspected abuse, call 800-252-5400 or submit a report online at www.txabusehotline.org.