Saturday, December 9, 2023

Advocacy center sees increase in abuse cases

Kristen Howell, CEO of Children’s Advocacy Center for Denton County, said abuse cases are on the rise. (Photo by Helen’s Photography)

Anticipating a growing need for its services to abused children in one of the country’s fastest-growing counties, Children’s Advocacy Center for Denton County completed an expansion of its Lewisville campus shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit this year.

The 14,000 square feet of new space, renovation of 10,000 square feet of existing space and doubling of the staff and budget put the agency in position to meet a doubling of clients over the past four years. Investigations into crimes against children have grown substantially during the last few years due to population growth.

“We were growing so much we needed the additional space,” said Kristen Howell, CACDC’s chief executive officer since 2017. “We just wanted to make sure the kids of this region are served.”

The project increased the number of forensic interview rooms from two to four and therapy rooms from 20 to 22. A Rainbow Room, where food, hygiene items and toys were stored, was expanded as were training rooms for child abuse professionals. Plus, a beautiful outdoor playground was installed.

Some of the changes were completed last fall with the final touches finished in February. One month later, the world changed. And while the pandemic has taken its toll on those who get sick and don’t want to spread it to others, there have been more hidden side effects than anyone realized.

The Children’s Advocacy Center’s new playground in Lewisville. (Photo by Helen’s Photography)

“Kids have taken the brunt of this pandemic in so many ways,” Howell said. “They have had their support systems really limited. They have had their fun and developmental stages really stunted. Additionally, kids who are in unsafe homes have been really trapped. So it’s been a heartbreaking time for a lot of our kids.

“Our kids are feeling suicidal in numbers I never would have dreamed of. And their families are really stressed. They can’t get into psychiatric inpatient care for their child because of COVID concerns or offices are backed up.”

The pandemic has increased stress on parents having to perform the dual roles of parenting and caregiving. Others have suffered financially from losing jobs and/or insurance. Being stuck inside for long periods of time hasn’t helped either and alcoholism, drug use, domestic violence and depression all have been on the rise.

Teachers are among the first lines of defense for abused children and when schools shut down in March, the number of reported cases dropped dramatically. Since students went back into their classrooms in August, September and October, the number of reported cases has risen from 20 a week to more than 90. Physical abuse cases were up 260 percent. Howell and her 55-person staff also have seen a rise in children with injuries.

“This is a call to action,” Howell said. “This is one of those moments in time when our kids are looking at us wondering if they are invisible and they certainly are feeling damaged so if we can have the community rally around and identify those kids and help them connect to authorities, it will make a huge difference. ”

CACDC works with 41 law enforcement jurisdictions that investigate cases in Denton and Wise counties, the latter of which was added this year. Some of those investigations lead to criminal charges.

“The primary crime investigated is sexual abuse, but because of the rise in domestic violence, we are seeing physical abuse go up as well. When there is violence against the mom there is violence against the kids,” Howell said. “That’s where we have seen dangerous situations really escalate.”

Many of the crimes committed against kids are family-based crimes which are investigated where kids live. Others are related to youth involvement in sports or religious activities or neighbors and a growing number occur on social media since kids are online more than ever this year.

Fortunately, CACDC has been able to keep up with the growing demand as its budget has not taken as much of a hit as other organizations. It remains open for investigations while holding its mental health services virtually since April.

“Our services have increased dramatically, but our fundraising actually has been okay,” Howell said. One annual fundraiser was cancelled and another went virtual.

“We were extremely worried about it. But we found that even though our donors couldn’t give to our mission through fundraising events they still wanted to donate directly to ensure services are provided.”

No staff has been laid off, but Howell hasn’t been able to hire four additional therapists she desperately needs, and thanks to COVID there are fewer volunteer opportunities available to the community.

With the holiday season in full swing, CACDC still needs community support to provide kids with Christmas gifts, clothing, food, cleaning products and toys. Individuals can donate groceries, gift cards or fun items to make kids feel like kids.

“To me this is a community problem,” Howell said. “The responsibility to ensure every abused child gets safety, justice and healing lies on the adults in our community.”

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