Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Missouri child advocacy centers “walked the walk,” as they exercised the same resilience skills that they seek to teach children and families, in the wake of abusive and traumatic events. The stories, below, illustrate the resourcefulness and creativity that they showed out of an unwavering commitment to the well-being of Missouri’s children.
Child Safe of Central Missouri, Sedalia
Even though the pandemic limited access to many programs and agencies, Child Safe of Central Missouri remained open to meet the needs of the communities we serve. In the beginning we were hopeful these extraordinary times we were embarking on would only last a few months and things would be back to normal. We were fully aware of just how fluid the nature of the situation was, but somehow remained confident in the strength of our organization and community. I am not sure that any of us were truly prepared for what would take place in the next year. We knew historically in times of stress and anxiety, child abuse reports would escalate, and we tried to prepare our center for the same with this crisis.
Our team quickly put a plan in motion that included a two-team approach for the purpose of limiting staff, MDT members, children, and their families to a possible exposure to COVID. We enhanced our cleaning practices and followed the recommendations regarding the use of masks. We were able to recognize early into the pandemic that one of the major impacts from COVID was the need to increase our ability to offer therapy by providing services using telehealth and other online platforms. We increased our social media presence to create an awareness and educate our communities on how to report child abuse and neglect.
After working in teams for a short period of time we quickly realized we were stronger team together and made the difficult decision to come back as one team. Child Safe’s team has demonstrated unwavering dedication, bravery, and compassion during some of the most difficult and trying times. Their relentless commitment has made it possible to reach the goals that we set out to achieve. Unity is strength, when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved. It is not about the individual pieces, but how they work together.
– Mari Asbury, Executive Director
Children’s Center of Southwest Missouri, Joplin
Our team did an excellent job pivoting services during this very challenging year. Our services were never shut down and team members kept a positive attitude during very challenging circumstances. A couple of situations in particular stand out.
On a Friday afternoon in early April, we received a call from our MDT that they had a young girl that needed to be seen emergently for an interview and medical exam. Then, the dreaded words came over the phone. “Oh, and she is in quarantine for COVID-19”. At that point we had measures in place to protect staff, MDT members, and clients from potential exposures. We were not prepared to handle an active COVID-19 case.
Staff brainstormed options and we decided to do the emergent medical exam and wait to interview the child until she was past the quarantine period. We contacted our collaborating physician at Freeman Health for advice. She helped us get the additional PPP supplies and told us what additional precautions to take.
We removed everything from the medical room except the equipment and supplies necessary to conduct the exam. Staff members involved in the case put on all the essential PPP. We instructed the family to arrive at our back entrance. The family was greeted by staff, given the necessary PPP, and escorted to the exam room. We comp let ed paperwork, met with the mom and conducted the exam all in the same room to limit exposures. After the exam, we sprayed down all surfaces in the room with our ION sprayer, closed the door and left the room untouched for 2 hours.
The family and MDT were very appreciative of our ability to problem solve and come up with a solution that exceeded expectations.
Our Counseling staff also went above and beyond during the past year. They pivoted quickly to virtual sessions, so that kids had continuity of service. This involved establishing a secure virtual platform, acquiring laptops for all counselors, reformatting forms for electronic signatures, making sure kids had a reliable device, internet service, a private area for sessions, and supplies for activities. They also rearranged their entire schedules, so that only one provider was in the counseling center at a time.
When other services providers were identifying reasons for not providing services, our staff stepped up and figured out how we could continue to serve children and families. I am so very proud to work with this team of dedicated individuals.
– Vickie Dudley, Executive Director
Child Protection Center, Kansas City
Mental Health Services
The CPC’s Mental Health Services Program continued to accept referrals and provide therapy during COVID-19 by utilizing telehealth with all families that chose to participate virtually. For children that were too young to effectively participate virtually, the CPC therapists provided teletherapy consultation and support to their parents/caregivers until they could resume in-person treatment. If families didn’t have adequate internet connection/phone access to remotely participate in regular sessions, the therapists reached back out to the families upon their return to the office in May of 2020 to determine what services were needed and reinitiate in-person therapy.
Throughout the lockdown period, the CPC’s therapists triaged newly referred clients by reaching out to them by phone, assess their immediate needs and determine how they could best provide them with mental health services in the interim period. The program’s assessment processes have continued to include assessing children/teens for serious depression, self-harming ideation, or other behaviors that put them at high risk, which has been particularly problematic during social distancing and isolation. While most of the CPC’s therapy services have been provided in-person since the lockdown was lifted, the CPC has continued to offer the use of teletherapy for children/families, as needed, to accommodate client scheduling, health issues/quarantine restrictions, and weather-related issues. The CPC will continue to offer the option of teletherapy for all clients that are able to use this modality effectively. In 2020, the CPC served 83 children/teens and 93 adult caregivers through 1,031 sessions (797 in-person/234 virtual sessions).
During the COVID-19 pandemic and still today, the CPC’s Family Advocates meet face-to-face with non-offending caregivers of the child victims to provide crisis intervention and help caregivers understand the dynamics of abuse, the importance of mental health treatment for the child and family, and how to navigate the complex emotional, physical and legal issues that arise following their child’s report of abuse. During these face-to-face meetings, the CPC’s family advocates also spent time talking to caregivers about the challenges and hardships that they were/are currently facing due to COVID-19. Caregivers have shared that they have lost their jobs, or that their spouses/partners have lost their jobs, and that they were struggling to pay for their monthly rent/mortgage and utility payments. Some have mentioned that they were/are struggling to pay for daily necessities like food to feed their families.
Before COVID-19, the CPC had limited emergency funding dollars to spend (outside of transportation assistance to and from the CPC) to help these families in crisis. While the organization SACRED helps child abuse victims who are sexually abused, fewer resources and financial support are available to help those children and families who have been physically abused or who have witnessed domestic violence or a homicide. However, during COVID-19, the CPC was able to secure funding through the Victims of Crime Act, Jackson County COMBAT and the Kansas City Regional COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund to help families secure food, provide assistance with rent/mortgage and utility payments, and assist families with gas cards. In 2020, the CPC’s Family Advocacy Program served 793 non-offending caregivers.
Even during the worst of the pandemic, the CPC continued to provide forensic interviews, multi-session forensic interviews, and on-call emergency forensic interviews. The CPC’s Intake Coordinator worked and continues to work with families and multidisciplinary team partners to get appointments scheduled. This was challenging at times as families worked to navigate restrictions and concerns due to COVID-19. As such, some families canceled scheduled appointments or chose to wait to re-schedule when the stay-at-home mandate was lifted. Other families chose to keep their appointments. The CPC also worked with its referring partners to navigate their attendance during the forensic interview and family advocacy sessions at the CPC. Additional changes/challenges faced included:
- The CPC’s interviewers rendered testimony via Web X. Technology problems interfered with this process at times.
- The CPC interviewers were not allowed to have other interviewers shadow them in court. This greatly reduced the amount of learning opportunities for the CPC’s forensic interviewers.
- Jury trials were pushed out until 2021 which is anticipated to create scheduling problems among the CPC’s forensic interviewers.
- Families were only being allowed to bring one child and one caregiver to reduce the number of people in the CPC’s small lobby. This caused delays in scheduling and caused the family to have to ensure that they have someone to watch their other child/children while they are at the CPC.
Additionally, having to navigate the space challenges that the CPC staff faces in its current leased space has been nothing short of challenging. Finding adequate space that allows families and the CPC staff to remain six-feet apart while proving services was and still is not an easy task. This is impossible to do during the forensic interview as the rooms are so small. In addition, having two-teams of staff rotating in and out of the CPC office space each week, and having some staff work from home has helped with the space restrictions.
Today, too many children in the Greater Kansas City area continue to experience or witness traumatic events. In fact, in 2020, 9,686 cases involving children in Jackson County, 1,106 children in Cass County and 427 children in Lafayette County were reported to the Missouri Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline. These are the three counties that the Child Protection Center (CPC) primarily serves.
Even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for the CPC’s services didn’t slow down. In 2020, 791 children from Jackson, Cass, and Lafayette counties were seen at the CPC for forensic interviews due to acute, chronic or complex trauma. Having been exposed to one or more traumatic events that caused, or had the potential to cause traumatic stress. Of those 791 children, 457 were sexually abused, 252 were physically abused, 101 witnessed child abuse, 68 witnessed domestic violence, 17 witnessed a homicide, and 83 children experienced abuse in an alternative form. In 2020 alone, the CPC worked with law enforcement to provide 93 emergency cases that needed a forensic interview.
Every year, the CPC gives a voice to over 800 child abuse victims and their families. The children that walk through the CPC’s doors often have experienced an insurmountable amount of trauma. The CPC provides children and their families that have experienced hardships through no action or responsibility of their own, with the services and support they so desperately need.
While today the new normal might call for wearing masks during the forensic interview, family advocacy and therapy sessions, one thing remains unchanged… the CPC’s staff showing up and standing up for every client served. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the CPC’s leadership team and programmatic staff have learned that they must be open-minded and adapt to changes and challenges faced. They have learned to lean in and count on one another even more as they adapt to this new normal. While the CPC had a number of exposures to COVID-19 from clients and other staff interactions outside of the work place, to date, not a single case of COVID-19 has been experienced by any CPC staff member.
– Lisa Mizell, President and CEO
SEMO-NASV, Cape Girardeau
Our agency split into 2 teams and alternated working in the office and from home throughout the pandemic. None of our staff contracted COVID-19. We were able to operate fully during business hours as well as after hours for emergencies. Forensic interviews and exams, advocacy, and counseling all remained available to our clients from March 2020 until March 2021 when our teams reunited in the office, fully vaccinated. I’m incredibly proud of our staff and grateful to our board for all the support they provided throughout this time.
– Kendra Eads, Executive Director
Voices of Courage, St. Joseph
The staff at Voices of Courage Child Advocacy Center in St. Joseph MO didn’t hesitate for one minute during the pandemic that struck us in March of 2020. We gathered as much information as we could from all CAC’s around the state as well as other types of businesses about how they planned to handle their schedules. Many businesses closed, some went to a minimal staff. At Voices of Courage, we considered all options and the staff came to the same conclusion – we have to be here for our kids!
In the beginning, we tried the two team alternate schedule – but it didn’t work for us.
Next, we tried having those who could do so, work from home – but it didn’t work for us.
Finally, we simply gave everyone the option of coming back into the office utilizing caution – and everyone agreed that this worked for us!
As a result, we started seeing more children whose cases were more severe than we would ever want to see. Our requests for therapy and other resources for families has increased dramatically – to the point that we can no longer keep up and are having to try and find funding to hire another therapist.
We have improved relations with our “out county” MDT’s and they have shown us that they care about the kids they serve – and that helps us help more children. This is a direct result of a concerted effort by our staff to improve relations with these counties and improve our ability to work together for kids.
The staff at Voices of Courage never stopped working, always took appropriate precautions so that we could continue to see children and understood that the pandemic did not slow down the bigger problem in our society – child abuse and neglect. The staff knew their role and embraced the’front line’ mentality to keep our kids safe.
– Melissa Birdsell, Executive Director