COVID-19 crisis highlights need for more advocates for children in several Texas counties

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Due to the coronavirus pandemic, counties around Texas are seeing a greater need for volunteers and advocates to help children entering the child welfare system.

Last week, KXAN reported a dramatic decrease in reports of child abuse and neglect, leaving the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) concerned. They said the drop in calls might actually indicate an increase in abuse, as the switch to online learning makes it harder for people to notice troubling signs in children’s lives at home.

MORE: Why a drop in abuse and neglect reports concerns child protective services

However, new numbers from DFPS show no significant decrease in the number of children removed from homes, due to abuse or neglect, during the pandemic. This means, as DFPS continues to investigate cases, there is still a flood of children entering the foster care system each month.

  • November 2019: 1,215 children
  • December 2019: 1,176 children
  • January 2020: 1,421 children
  • February 2020: 1,288 children
  • March 2020: 1,401 children
  • Apr 2020: 1,257 children

When a child is removed from a possibly dangerous situation in their home, a judge may appoint a Court Appointed Special Advocate to look out for the best interest of the child, in court and other settings. But as child removals remain steady, the number of volunteers is down in some parts of the state.

CASA for the Highland Lakes, serving Blanco, Burnet, Lampasas, Llano and San Saba Counties, sent out a plea to the community for more volunteers.

“The COVID-19 crisis is affecting us all,” Executive Director Conrad Arriola said. “Like the rest of us, children in foster care are facing things like increased stress, physical and mental health risks, reduced access to goods and services and social isolation. They need someone on their side, who can help them feel safe and connected, now more than ever.” 

In its area, CASA for the Highland Lakes reported 260 children in foster care, including 45 kids who were removed from their homes since the beginning of COVID-19 mandated emergency orders in March. Right now, it reported 68 assigned CASAs in its area.

Arriola said which several community members have stepped up to help during the pandemic, 38 kids still need an advocate.

“I just think it’s really accelerated: the isolation, the abuse,” he said.

He told KXAN their advocates have had to get creative, since they cannot visit kids at their new placements in person.

“Through Zoom, through Face Time. We’ve had advocates leave a pizza on the porch,” he explained.

CASA of Travis County said they’ve moved their operations entirely online, as well.

“We are advocating for children’s best interest over Zoom, sometimes, with the judges, or sometimes by email,” CEO Laura Wolf said. “The whole system is continuing to do the work to take care of these kids and support their families, but it definitely looks a lot different than it did four months ago.”

Wolf said they have been thankful for many new volunteers during the health crisis, as well, but they are bracing for an increase in cases as things begin to reopen.

“Once kids are back, more visible in the community — now that child care centers can open and kids can go to summer school, since schools can open now — we do expect to see, probably, an influx of reports and likely an increase in the number of kids coming into the system,” she said.

Right now, CASA of Travis County is currently serving 1,082 kids, with 494 active volunteer advocates. They reported 599 kids in the system who still need a volunteer advocate.

Wolf explained that child removals may have remained steady because very serious cases are still being investigated by the state.

“Those are the cases that are getting to the hospital and getting to law enforcement,” she said.

Many cases they see, however, don’t escalate to the level of abuse, but involve drug use in the home or neglect. Wolf said, no matter the reason, they need CASA volunteers who are willing to fight for the best outcome for the child.

“What are the supports that parents need — that families need — in order to provide a safe and appropriate home for their children? If it can be safe, our first goal is to be able to reunify children with their parents,” she said.

Arriola said they understand if people can’t donate their time as an advocate, but they encourage the community to give back to kids in the system in other ways.

“Besides being a volunteer, gift cards are the best thing,” he said, adding that they give them to kids for birthdays or special occasions. “Also, technology, tablets — making sure kids have the infrastructure they need.”

They offer a program called Friends of CASA, where community members can do community outreach, office support, or fundraising. To find out more, click here. To volunteer as a CASA in the Highland Lakes Area, click here.

To volunteer in Travis County, click here.

For more information on CASA across Texas, click here.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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