When schools closed suddenly in March for the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of child abuse cases reported to the La Plata County Department of Human Services dropped by 41%. But Martha Johnson, director of Human Services, doesn’t think the decrease has anything to do with fewer incidents of abuse.
Families were sheltering in place, and potential cases of abuse were not as apparent for those on the front lines who typically report signs of abuse, such as teachers, Johnson said.
The number of reported cases of child abuse rose to average levels in September, with 81 calls made to the Department of Human Services for the month. But schools across Southwest Colorado are shutting down again to avoid outbreaks during the busy holiday season.
Called Holidays with Heart, the fundraiser is intended to help the organization meet an anticipated increase in children who need support while also helping local businesses affected by COVID-19, said Executive Director Ashley Hein.
“A lot of people are coming out of COVID-19 with divorce papers,” Hein said, “and they don’t want to see each other.”
4 the Children coordinates safe exchanges between parents by having a volunteer wait 15 minutes or so with the child while the other parent comes to pick them up. Volunteers can use that time to talk with the children and assess their situation at home, Hein said.
The organization also coordinates supervised visits between noncustodial parents and their children, if needed.
Substance abuse rates have also gone up in Colorado during the pandemic. Already, overdose deaths across the state have increased by 28%, according to a report from The Associated Press.
When substance abuse increases, more children are apt to be removed from their homes, Hein said.
“But people don’t want to talk about it or hear about it,” she said.
4 the Children has a Court Appointed Special Advocates program, a national program that provides a volunteer to serve as a court-appointed advocate for children who are involved in the welfare system and have experienced abuse or neglect.
The organization hopes to raise $50,000 to boost the programs in the coming months, in part through the online auction. It will feature items from local clothing stores such as Lively and Cartwheel Clothing.
Funding will help the organization develop a child advocacy center, where victims of abuse could come forward and tell their story once to a trusted adult, instead of several times to the police department, the hospital and Child Protective Services.
“That creates more trauma,” Hein said.
La Plata and Archuleta counties comprise one of three areas in Colorado that do not have a designated child advocacy center.
Barbara Casey, former executive director and current long-standing volunteer with 4 the Children, said the organization is important because it gives children who are going through a difficult time a trustworthy and compassionate adult to rely on as they transition between foster homes and lawyers – one that “doesn’t have an agenda.”
The ultimate goal of 4 the Children’s programs is reunification, Casey said.
One pregnant woman with a mental health illness had to stop taking her medication because of her pregnancy, and subsequently had a mental health crisis. 4 the Children coordinated care for the child after it was born, and scheduled visits so the mother could still breastfeed.
The mother eventually resumed the necessary medication and care, and her child is now living with her again.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Southwest Colorado means people spend less time in public places, such as schools or doctors’ offices, where cases are often first identified and reported, Casey said.
With unemployment rates rising again and hourly jobs compromised by COVID-19 outbreaks, “unfortunately a lot of stress in peoples’ lives comes out on kids,” Casey said.
“But I’ve seen amazing changes in children when they feel safe and heard,” Casey said.
Volunteers with 4 the Children help represent those voices in the courtroom, she added.
“These kids are going to be acting members of our communities, and we want to stop the cycle of abuse,” Hein said.
She hopes the auction will also benefit local businesses that can’t participate in the typical holiday bazaars or markets as a result of restrictions with the rise in COVID-19 cases.
People who purchase items from the online holiday auction can “make a big impact while shopping local,” Hein said.