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CASA of Travis County overcoming COVID-19 pandemic challenges to help children

Court Appointed Special Advocates put a hiring freeze in place near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In turn, CASA did not take on new cases until recently.

AUSTIN, Texas — Because of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, April and May, reports of child abuse dropped to the lowest levels in the past five years, according to Laura Wolf, the CEO of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Travis County.

Wolf said that's what Travis County judges told her in the beginning months of the coronavirus spread. While the number of calls dropped, the reports of child abuse were more severe, according to Wolf.

"Those cases that did come in were very serious because they typically came from law enforcement or hospitals," Wolf said.

During that same time, CASA stopped taking on new cases primarily because of financial burden – they did not have enough paid staff. 

According to Wolf, paid staff oversee cases taken on by volunteers. 

If CASA had taken on more cases, there would not be enough staff to oversee them. And with the coronavirus slamming local economies, Wolf did not know how they would be affected.

Fortunately, CASA started taking on new cases again within the last few weeks. Calls for child abuse had gone back up in June and July. 

According to Wolf, there were more child abuse calls in July 2020 than there were in July 2019. She said it could possibly be because more mandatory child abuse reporters like child care center workers and teachers are starting to see kids somewhat regularly again. 

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Another problem arose though: volunteers typically can't visit the children involved in cases because of the pandemic. Wolf said there are exceptions depending on their placements, but volunteers are handling meetings virtually through Zoom.

"We've had volunteers who delivered pizza to the home where their kids were, and then they had pizza, so they had a pizza party together over Zoom," Wolf said. "Another volunteer found a paper version of the old Battleship game and sent that to the placement where the child she's advocating for was placed so they did that together."

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Wolf added that these meetings don't have quite the same human connection, but in some ways it's provided another option for advocates to see the kids more often. 

In the same vein, CASA has seen a surge in volunteers. Over the past few months, those volunteers have been trained virtually.

"We have found that our volunteer training over Zoom has been very effective, very well received," Wolf said. "Some folks have told us, 'I'm able to participate in the training now because it's online, whereas before I wouldn't have been able to get from my office to your office by six when the training starts.'"

Wolf added she plans to continue hosting some trainings virtually as well as in-person once the pandemic allows for that.

WATCH: CASA of Travis County overcoming COVID-19 pandemic challenges to help children

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