Austin (KXAN) — A lead Austin organization that support survivors of abuse believe the coronavirus pandemic creates conditions which leave children and youth especially vulnerable.
Austin’s SAFE Alliance, which offers resources, legal assistance, counseling, and a host of other services to help people in the Austin area who have experienced violence and abuse, said they are seeing an increased number of calls related to child abuse and parenting support to their 24-hour SAFEline hotline.
- If you or someone you know needs support, the 24/7 SAFEline is available by phone at 512.267.SAFE (7233), by text at 737-888-7233, or by online chat at safeaustin.org/chat.
In the period between March 1 and April 26 of 2020, SAFE reports a 42% increase in calls seeking help related to child abuse or parenting support compared to that same period of time in the year prior. Additionally, SAFE reported an 11% increase in domestic violence calls and a 7% increase of total calls over that same time period compared to the year prior.
These numbers stand in contrast to the decreasing reports of child abuse to the state of Texas. The Texas Department of Family Protective Services expects that calls and online reports will slow when children are out of school, as they do typically over summer breaks.
Despite the numbers reported to government entities, SAFE believes children are still being abused.
“We believe state agencies are seeing a decrease because many of the people who most commonly report child abuse are no longer interacting closely with children,” explained Antwon Martin, a spokesperson for SAFE, noting that in Travis County the top three groups of people most likely to report child abuse are law enforcement, educators, and medical professionals.
“Educators, in particular, are not in as much contact with children, so they aren’t seeing the signs of child abuse,” Martin said.
He believes that the increase in calls SAFE is seeing relates to the way the organization is viewed by the public: families may fear that if they call the government their child will be taken away and may be more likely to turn to a community group for services.
“For example, our Strong Start program exists to strengthen the bond between parents and their children, not remove children from their homes,” Martin noted.
Vincent Tovar explained that SAFE also has other free resources for parents and caregivers including classes and advocates who speak in English, Spanish, or offer interpretation services for other languages or anyone who is deaf.
Tovar said that if the SAFE advocates who respond to the SAFEline are given enough information by a child to make a report, they are required to do so. However, people can have a conversation with these advocates without revealing any identifying information.
Tovar explained that when a minor begins to provide SAFE staff with information that the staff member thinks might be reportable, the advocate stops the minor and lets them know what they will have to do with that information if the child shares it.
“It’s the children’s choice whether they want to continue that conversation or not,” he said.
If youth are in need of a safe place to say, there’s a chance that SAFE can help with that as the organization does have some ability to bring in unaccompanied minors.
Tovar acknowledged that as the stressors pile up for everyone during COVID-19, “we know that children are suffering in silence.”
“As work hours in jobs are cut, bill and rent payments remain, food insecurity looks like the endless lines at Central Texas Food Bank, and online/distant learning becomes an expectation, the stress parents and caregivers are experiencing can become overwhelming,” he noted. “Too often this can be taken out on our most vulnerable population: children.”
These stressors are reflected in the requests for help SAFE team members are receiving.
“Frankly, we haven’t seen anything like this before,” Antwon Martin added. “We are seeing a prolonged period of increased calls and we are having to react in a lot of unique and innovative ways.”
Martin said more of SAFE’s staff are offering support virtually or online now.
Tovar explained that getting the word out about the increases in calls SAFE is seeing and the resources they have available during the pandemic is “step one” in trying to reach kids during this time.
“We need to make sure that we are reaching the families and that we are in contact with them as much as possible, ” he said.
Tovar believes professionals, teachers, community organizations, and loved ones can help by calling families regularly and check in on how they are doing.
“Sometimes after a while of calling them, they may say, ‘I recognize you as a trusted sympathizer and supporter, I’m gonna tell you this,'” he offered.
If you or someone you know needs to get in touch with SAFE, you can call their 24-hour SAFEline at 512.267.SAFE (7233). You can also text 737.888.SAFE (7233) or use their SAFEline chat.
Call the Texas Abuse Hotline 1-800-252-5400 if you have an urgent situation that needs to be investigated within 24-hours and call 9-1-1 if you have an emergency that needs to be dealt with immediately.