Children advocacy organizations in Hays County have focused their efforts toward providing online resources for the community to notice signs of potential abuse.
Organizations such as TexProtects, the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Central Texas and the Greater San Marcos Youth Council were forced to adjust their approach to protecting children from abuse due to the COVID-19 pandemic. New strategies include extending online programs and educating community members to spot and report potential cases.
Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order extending at-home learning until May 4. Since this executive order has been in effect, the number of cases typically reported by teachers and child care workers are in decline.
Since Hays County public schools have moved to a remote learning model, teachers and child care workers, who report 25% of abuse cases in Texas, are no longer able to be the eyes and ears for children who may be experiencing abuse at home.
Kerrie Judice, Child Protective Services research and policy analyst for TexProtects, said there are more concerns of unreported abuse or neglect anytime kids are not seen by other mandated professional reporters.
“There are fewer people asking questions and determining if something seems out of the ordinary,” Judice said. “When kids are in school or at daycare, there are more opportunities to observe kids’ and parents’ behaviors.”
The Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center Director of Community Partnerships Melissa Rodriguez said the center is relying on community members to report suspected abuse cases.
Rodriguez said it was important to get comfortable with having conversations about signs of child abuse as well as learning what the signs are so individuals know when they need to report suspicious activities.
“People are very uncomfortable with interfering in a family because ‘what if I’m wrong and I’m going to break up this family?'” Rodriguez said. “These conversations are valuable in many ways and that’s why it is so important… to just get comfortable.”
Normally, the HCWC has prevention educators who would go speak to children in schools to teach kids about violence and what they can do if they experience abuse, but because schools are engaging in remote learning, the center has employees who are dedicated to uploading prevention education on their website and social media.
In addition to providing abuse prevention education, child abuse advocacy centers in Hays County are working to reach children at home. To maintain social distancing regulations amid the COVID-19 pandemic, services that are typically conducted in-person are being conducted online when possible.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Central Texas is a volunteer-based child advocacy program in Hays, Caldwell, Comal and Guadalupe counties. CASA volunteers are appointed by a judge to advocate for children and affect public policy in the for those in the child protection system.
Eloise Hudson, communications coordinator for CASA of Central Texas, said they are still working to make sure children are getting the services they need.
“Our emphasis is to really make sure that the children we are already appointed to are not getting lost in all of this,” Hudson said. “We’re really making sure that these kids are still getting what they need while they’re in substitute care.”
Eloise said CASA volunteers are not able to conduct their monthly in-person visits with children. Rather than meeting in person, volunteers are using Zoom or other video chat services to check in with the kids.
“The court hearings have been held online, so our volunteers can video conference into those and be part of those court hearings,” Hudson said.
The Greater San Marcos Youth Council is an organization whose focus is providing care for children between 2-17 years old who are in the state’s custody due to abuse or neglect.
The GSMYC responded to COVID-19 social distancing regulations by contacting their non-residential clients who participate in the Family and Youth Success Program, a program that addresses family conflict.
GSMYC Director Julia New said they receive calls from parents who are concerned about paying bills and keeping their families fed. Parents are also worried about their children being depressed and feeling isolated.
“Being cooped up with family can be trying under the best of circumstances,” New said.
The center is providing educational resources for parents who may not be used to staying at home with their children all day and who were overwhelmed before the pandemic to prevent them from verbally lashing out.
HCWC provides exercises families can do together on their StopTheHurt website, an educational project for people who seek to develop positive relationships. StopTheHurt provides educational resources for parents experiencing stress and gives tips for positive discipline techniques and how to set a schedule with children at home.
While events the center planned are now canceled, the 24-hour services that are still being provided include the emergency center, hospital response and the HELPLine for crisis calls and emergency forensic interviews. Roxanne’s House, the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center’s Child Advocacy Center is also still open and providing services.