With teachers reporting 15% of abuse cases, Houston-area foster care advocates worry of unreported abuse amid pandemic

(Designed by Justin Howell)
(Designed by Justin Howell)

(Designed by Justin Howell)

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Angel Reach.

With schools closed and families encouraged to stay home, Houston-area nonprofit leaders worry there will be a spike in reports of abuse as coronavirus measures are lifted, allowing groups to gather again.

School facilities across the Greater Houston area have been closed since mid-March to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and will not reopen this school year. Texas Department of Family and Protective Services data shows schools contributed 15% of abuse and neglect reports throughout the state in fiscal year 2019, second to medical personnel for the source of most reports in the state.

“Once we start to get out again, people are going to start saying things, and kids will start talking,” said Arianne Riebel, director of adoption and foster care services for Arms Wide Adoption Services in Houston, an agency placing children in the state’s foster care system into foster and adoptive homes. “I think that’s when the reports are going to start coming in more. That’s the major reason why here we can’t slow down. They’re going to need these homes for these kiddos in the future.”

Further, foster care advocates said the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting stay-home orders and upended schedules only exacerbate the trauma children in foster care have experienced.

“The fear and anxiety that we’re all feeling now—the ‘What’s going on? What’s going to happen tomorrow? Where are my friends?’—that’s what these foster kids experience every day because they have been taken away from every body and every one that they know to be familiar,” said Ann McAlpin, executive director of CASA Child Advocates of Montgomery County, which recruits and trains court-appointed advocates for children in the foster care system. “We’re concerned that this on top—all of this uncertainty on top of all of the trauma and uncertainty that they’ve already experienced—is really going to double the trauma.”

Anticipating needs

In DFPS Region 6—which spans 13 counties, including Harris, Montgomery, Fort Bend and Galveston—approximately 2,400 children were in foster care in the month of April, and the region included 2,000 foster homes in April, Region 6 Media Specialist Tiffani Butler said.

She said the DFPS has not had problems finding placements for children entering foster care during the pandemic, and the number of children removed from homes in April is not unlike any other year.

“We’re a little bit concerned that we don’t have actual eyes on the children because there’s a lot that you get from nuance and seeing that you don’t get from phone calls,” McAlpin said. “We’re concerned that abuse that’s happening right now might not be being reported. We have not seen a downturn in the numbers, but those go up and down year by year anyway.”

McAlpin said advocates are charged with talking to everyone involved in the child’s case, including teachers, psychiatrists and medical professionals, as well as building a relationship with the child. Without being able to meet the child in person during the pandemic, advocates have resorted to FaceTime or phone calls to keep up with the child’s needs.

With teachers reporting a significant amount of the abuse and neglect cases in the state, McAlpin said she believes there will be a need for more foster parents as well as child advocates to counter the spike in reported abuse she anticipates once children are able to see teachers again.

“We do think there will be a need for foster parents, and we’re concerned that potential foster parents are going to be afraid to take children into their homes because it’s going to be a while before the curve truly flattens out,” McAlpin said.

To help meet the anticipated demand for foster families, Riebel said Arms Wide Adoption Services—which serves Region 6—has adjusted its operations to avoid delaying the licensing process for prospective families.

“I feel like more families are reaching out for the licensing process. Honestly, I think it’s because they’re home more and they have time to stop, do the research, attend the meetings and all of that,” she said.

Finger printing and fire inspections have been difficult to complete as social distancing measures have been enacted, Riebel said. However, Riebel said Arms Wide has allowed families to attend training sessions with everything but these few items completed in the licensing process so as not to delay the process further.

Home studies were also paused in April but have resumed in May with personal protective equipment and social distancing in place, she said.

“We haven’t allowed this to delay any of our process, because if it does, it will be delayed for the rest of the year,” Riebel said.

Training sessions have also moved to live online sessions for all portions but CPR and first aid, which are being held one family at a time in person, she said. The agency’s information meetings—usually held in person—have gone virtual as well, she said, and Arms Wide will continue offering virtual information meetings to provide families greater flexibility even after in-person sessions are able to be held again. Upcoming meetings are scheduled May 20, May 28 and June 10.

Adapting to COVID-19

Butler said the DFPS has also moved its visits for families to be virtual when possible. In-person visits are happening only at DFPS offices where 6-foot distancing is in place and spaces are sanitized before and after a family comes in.

Lisa Johnson, executive director of Entrusted Houston—an organization providing resources to foster and adoptive families as well as DFPS employees—said her organization began refurnishing the 13 DFPS offices in the Greater Houston area earlier this year with easy-to-clean furniture and toys. Although efforts began before the pandemic hit, Johnson said she plans to resume the campaign after June 1. She said volunteers are needed to help.

“Our goal is this summer to finish the rest of the eight offices and get all of the stuff switched out,” she said.

Angel Reach, a Conroe-based organization that provides services for children who aged out of the foster care system, has also had to adapt during the coronavirus. Angel Reach Volunteer Coordinator Janel Savage said the organization will be hosting its first-ever drive-thru graduation from 4-6 p.m. June 7 at The Woodlands United Church parking lot for foster children who are graduating high school or receiving their GED.

“Many of them can’t afford their own cap and gown,” she said. “They don’t have the money to go to prom—maybe they don’t feel comfortable going to prom—so this event is all about them. We lift them up, we celebrate them.”

Also this summer, Love Fosters Hope has adapted by moving its overnight camp for children in foster care to an at-home camp, Executive Director Cindy Mericle said.

“Summer camps are a huge part of what we do, and of course that’s been very much impacted by the coronavirus,” she said.

In place of a June overnight camp, campers will have camp at home, receiving packages, video greetings, materials to bake a birthday cake, and arts and crafts, Mericle said. Teen camps have been rescheduled with tentative plans to hold camp in July.

“For the safety of everyone involved—for the children, for all of our volunteers—it is absolutely necessary for us to have a rapid [COVID-19] test with great accuracy at registration. We can’t get our hands on that right now,” she said.

The organization’s year-round mentorship program has also had to move remotely, Mericle said.

In addition, Love Fosters Hope has sent packages with gifts for each child and the family as a whole, Mericle said, to support them during the extended time at home.

“It’s been a surprising blessing, even though there’s so much bad stuff going on. Love Fosters Hope has been primarily focused on the children and the teenagers as they age out of foster care,” Mericle said. “This really opened us up to caring for the whole family, which I’m kind of shocked that we haven’t done that before, but we were so busy doing what we were doing."
By Anna Lotz

Editor, Tomball/Magnolia & Conroe/Montgomery

Anna joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in May 2016 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. In July 2017, she transitioned to editor for the Tomball/Magnolia edition. She began covering the communities of Conroe and Montgomery as well in 2020. Anna covers education, local government, transportation, business, real estate development and nonprofits in these communities. Prior to CI, Anna served as editor-in-chief of Cedars, interned with the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C., and spent time writing for the Springfield News-Sun and Xenia Daily Gazette.