Twelve children died from abuse or neglect in Tarrant County last year.
While deaths have been trending downward during the past few years, advocates expect to see an increase in reported abuse and neglect in the summer and fall as kids come to terms with mistreatment suffered during the pandemic and children interact with more mandated reporters. Community organizations are reaching out to families with resources and bracing for an uptick in need in the coming months.
“Our community has dramatically changed over the past two years,” said Ashley Elgin, chief executive officer of child welfare nonprofit Lena Pope. “It’s a matter of recognizing that if we can’t create a social and emotional support system in the academic environment, who else can? No one.”
Most at risk are the community’s youngest children. In the past decade, children 3 years of age and younger have made up almost 80% of all confirmed child abuse and neglect fatalities in Texas. Too young to enroll in school and often not attending daycare, the Department of Family and Protective Services said these kids are left without vital community touchpoints to identify potential abuse — pandemic or not.
“There are so many things that could go wrong in those types of situations,” she said. “That helper factor is not there, so we’re missing stuff. We’re missing red flags.”
Importance of early intervention, prevention
At Lena Pope, kids can start early learning classes as young as 6 weeks of age. It’s part of a larger effort by the organization to be involved in every step of a child’s development, in order to head off any problems that could arise. If an issue does come to light, they’ve already set the groundwork for trust and cooperation with the family.
“Part of that is not only teaching children how to manage their emotions, how to identify feelings, and how to communicate with adults about concerns, but also building a relationship with the parents,” Elgin said. “That is critical for success.”
More serious problems may require tailored support. Lena Pope offers several clinical programs to help assist children and their families with issues like substance abuse, depression and run-ins with the juvenile justice system.
“We all know there can be hurdles to jump along the way, so our clinical programs are designed to support both the parent and the child through any of those needs,” she said.
One of the starker findings from the Department of Family and Protective Services’ most recent report was that more than half of the children who died in Texas did not have prior interactions with Child Protective Services. The department didn’t have eyes on every child at risk, and when they weren’t flagged by community organizations, the results could be deadly.
“For children to remain safe, and thrive, it takes community collaboration to build support networks and resources, while normalizing a parent’s ability to seek help and engage families before tragedy strikes,” Department of Family and Protective Services officials wrote in the department’s annual report.
What does prevention of abuse and neglect look like?
- Home visits
- Parent support and education
- Depression screening
- Case management
- Media campaigns
– Ashley Elgin, CEO of Lena Pope
Elgin agreed. Parents and families who have not interacted with Child Protective Services might still be in touch with Lena Pope, she said, allowing them to work toward safe solutions for everyone involved. If the organization doesn’t offer the care a family needs, it will work to connect them with community partners and resources.
“I think that’s a big piece of it,” said Stacey Lewis, director of counseling and substance use at Lena Pope. “For example, we get a lot of folks that come in and don’t have insurance for their kids. We help them and if they don’t have the means to be able to afford insurance, we help them get signed up for Medicaid or if it’s CHIP, whatever it is and we show them how to access it.”
Delivering education, resources to families where they are
Just as deadly as physical abuse is neglect around safe sleep practices, water safety and vehicle safety.
Neglect-related deaths make up 64% of all child maltreatment deaths (neglect and abuse combined). This year, there was a decrease in deaths caused by unsafe sleep, neglectful supervision and drownings. To continue that trend, DFPS recommends promoting universal messages around child safety, similar to the popular “turn around, don’t drown” slogans that pop up every spring.
Part of Alliance for Children’s strategy is to meet young families where they’re at: communal spaces like YMCAs or churches. The perennial challenge is to deliver good information into the hands of people the families already know and trust.
“It’s one thing to see (an education campaign) on the side of a bus…but it’s another thing if somebody’s trying to give me advice on how I care for my children,” said Shellie Velasco, chief program officer at Alliance for Children.
The child advocacy organization has partnered with Tarrant Baptist Association, a network of churches, to deliver pack ‘n plays and education about safe sleep habits to young families around the county. Unsafe sleep accounted for 1 in 4 neglect-related deaths in Texas in 2021.
Becky Biser, the association’s director of leadership development, launched the project in 2018 after speaking with community leaders about the county’s infant mortality rate. A key takeaway, she said, is that parents didn’t always know what was safe, nor did they have a safe place for their babies to sleep.
“Many didn’t have a crib, they didn’t have a bassinet, they didn’t have a pack ‘n play,” Biser said. “(The babies) were going into bed with the parents and they were suffocating.”
Since the program began, Biser and her team have distributed close to $100,000 in pack ‘n plays to more than 40 sites throughout Tarrant County, including churches, hospitals and schools. Police officers and firefighters have access to pack ‘n plays at the Bob Bolen Public Safety Complex. If the first-responders see a baby without a crib on a house call, they can provide the family with a pack ‘n play — and train them to use it safely, Biser said.
What are the ABCs of safe sleep?
Babies should be:
- Alone — no stuffed animals, blankets or siblings
- On their Back
- In a Crib
Those small, daily interactions matter immensely, Velasco said. Anyone who interacts with a young family should take the time to check in and offer a hand or an ear, not only for support but also to fulfill a responsibility: In Texas, everyone is a mandated reporter.
“Even if it’s not my own child or somebody’s related to me, being part of this community, it is my job to look out for kids who are in my circle of influence,” she said.
How to report suspected abuse or neglect in Texas:
- If the situation is urgent, call the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services at 1-800-252-5400. The line is open 24/7.
- Otherwise, file a written report through the department’s website, here.
‘We offer it when we identify it’
A large part of breaking down the stigma around accepting help as a parent is taking initiative as a provider. Instead of waiting for someone to ask for help, Elgin said, “we offer it when we identify it.”
If a child is missing a lot of school, for example, Lena Pope staff members may proactively visit the child in the home and offer various resources.
“If they’re in our care … we can identify those kids that are at risk and say ‘Hey, what kinds of things do you need from us? We can offer you this. How about we provide that, here’s something’ without necessarily saying ‘You have to admit your limitations’. We’ll just say we have these resources, and we’d love to give it to you. “
Fear of punishment can be a barrier to parents admitting they’re in over their heads. By focusing on positive interventions rather than negative ones, Lena Pope helps parents understand it’s OK to ask for help.
“You know that your circumstances are such that it could be perceived as neglect, but you don’t really have any other choice,” she said. “So those early intervention strategies are at the core of what we do.”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
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