Child abuse concerns rise amid coronavirus outbreak

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CASA of Denton County provides trained community volunteers to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children.

While the current stay-at-home orders hopefully will soon stem the tide of the COVID-19 virus, they can have a chilling effect on abused and neglected children. That’s why in these uncertain days April is the perfect time for Child Abuse Awareness Month to come along.

According to Debbie Jensen, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Denton County, the fear is with children being confined to their homes, abuse and neglect cases may increase.

“There’s a lot more family stress. This can make it worse and often it’s the children who suffer,” she said. “The important thing is to keep it on the top of peoples’ minds even though we have a huge public health crisis on our hands.”

That pandemic has kept CASA’s 250 volunteers from visiting families’ homes or holding in-person awareness events to note the month. Volunteers have received virtual training including visiting remotely through video chats or by telephone.

“We’ve had to find new ways for them to visit and advocate besides visiting the home because we want to respect the orders of our county judge,” Jensen said. “We’ll definitely need more volunteers when this is all said and done and are able to go back into the community again because we think we’ll have more cases than ever.”

Even before the virus struck, the number of children in foster care was on the rise as the number of people moving into Denton County grows.

CASA is a nationwide organization where judges appoint highly-trained volunteers to help children navigate through the system. When a child doesn’t have a CASA volunteer appointed to their case it is an attorney that serves in that role.

CASA of Denton County, which started in 1992, helped 615 kids in 2019 and figures to have more this year. Volunteers typically work with 1 to 5 children and CASA utilizes married couples, friends or mother-daughter combinations to work with larger families. In Texas, children can stay in foster care up to age 21 if they agree to it and are either working or in college.

Teachers have always played a big role in spotting troubled kids as they often can detect signs that there is a problem.

“You definitely see physical signs of abused children,” Jensen said. “You can see kids who you know aren’t being taken care of. They have the appearance of not being taken care of. They may be physically neglected, dirty, and unkempt. But there are many children who don’t show signs; they can’t talk about it. Maybe a relative keeps in touch then suddenly aren’t allowed to talk to the child.”

With schools closed, volunteers are staying in touch with their children to make sure they are doing okay without their teachers and the many school activities they enjoy. They are making special efforts to send students snacks and books. The goal is to find the proper balance between helping kids and following the stay-at-home orders of government officials.

“Our volunteers have really been paying attention to their kids’ needs and helping to boost their spirits,” Jensen said. “We want to be very respectful of what our officials tell us to do.”

Donations to CASA of Denton County are encouraged as the organization is looking at postponement and cancellations of several fundraising events that would have provided much-needed revenue now. On top of that, the agency expects a significant increase in abuse and neglect cases once this crisis has passed and children return to school, day care and the watchful eyes of caring adults.

CASA has planned several virtual opportunities to learn about the growing problem of child abuse. The best place to learn the facts about child abuse, things to watch for, and highlighting work of volunteers is at www.casadenton.org. The organization will also have a presence on area highway billboards. Then once restrictions are lifted there will be more in-person on-site events. In the meantime, those interested can join a virtual info session by emailing Beth Potter at [email protected]

The organization’s primary fundraiser, the Pulling for Kids sporting clay tournament at the Dallas Gun Club has been moved from May 8 to Sept. 18. Sponsorship information can be found at casadenton.org.

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