Stresses of pandemic have Johnson County social workers concerned about domestic violence, child abuse

The Johnson County District Attorney reports a 6% increase in domestic violence cases filed this year, compared to same time period in 2019. Photo credit Ankyt. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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As mandatory stay-at-home orders in response to the coronavirus reverberate through Johnson County, social service workers say they are concerned about the impact this could have on those living in homes with domestic violence or child abuse.

“Over the last couple weeks, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of domestic violence calls, as well as juvenile offender calls, that are directly related to the fact that we’ve got that health epidemic as well as people being forced to stay at home,” said Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe. He added that there have been about 6% more domestic violence cases filed so far this year compared to same time period in 2019.

With the pandemic heightening financial and economic burdens, as well as health concerns, professionals worry that increased stress could trigger an increase in domestic violence. In addition, with the cancellation of in-person school, children may lose a key safety net. Educational personnel, most of whom are mandatory reporters, make up one in five reporters of child abuse and neglect, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“We usually see a spike in reports once kids go back to school in the fall, when they’re with their teachers,” said Bev Turner, Education Director for The Sunflower House, a children’s advocacy and abuse prevention center serving Johnson and Wyandotte counties. “That’s very concerning knowing that that (summer) break could be four months and not two months.”

In response to the pandemic, local social services and non-profits are having to adjust and adapt their services to attempt to provide a safety net for those experiencing domestic violence or child abuse. Plus, they have some advice for how community members can help keep their neighbors, friends and family safe during an unprecedented time.

What Community Members Can Do

As the Johnson County community adjusts to the shelter-in-place order, social service workers say that there are opportunities to help keep your neighbors, friends and family safe from abuse, even if it’s from a distance.

The most oft-repeated is to check in on each other, whether through a call, FaceTime or text.

“Normally what we suggest for community members is check in on your neighbors,” Turner said. “Are you seeing the neighbor kids in the backyard playing? When you call your friend, how’s their stress level?”

Turner specifically encourages parents to reach out to other parents, as well as having older kids check in on their friends. Middle schoolers and high schoolers are well-positioned to pick up on cues about their friends’ safety, she said.

Becca Anderson, a prevention specialist at MOCSA, encouraged people to reach out and strike up a conversation with “anybody that you have a gut feeling that you’re concerned about.” She added that “this isolation can be really tough for people who (are in an abusive relationship) where the method of control is not giving people access to socialization.”
Check in on each other through call, FaceTime or text, suggests Bev Turner, Education Director for The Sunflower House. Photo credit Mob Mob. Used under a Creative Commons license

Howe added that keeping stress levels as low as possible and finding emotional outlets are two other important goals during this time, since stress can be a trigger for abuse.

Ensuring families have internet access so that they can receive mental health treatment virtually, as well as maintaining childcare options in small group settings are other methods of preventing child abuse and neglect, said Dr. Linda Bass, President of KVC Kansas, a private, nonprofit child welfare and behavioral healthcare organization.

This can provide respite when stress levels are high, according to Bass. Daycare facilities in the Shawnee Mission area will remain open during the pandemic under the advice of the county’s health department.

Social Organizations Adapt Services to the Pandemic

While Johnson County courts are closed for regular business, they are not closed for emergency needs like protection orders, which can protect domestic violence victims from stalking and sexual assault. The Kansas Protection Report Center (KPRC) will also continue taking reports of abuse/neglect, and both child and adult protection workers will continue to receive and respond to abuse reports, according to a press release from the Kansas Department of Children and Families.

Safehome, Johnson County’s largest domestic violence shelter, will remain open for the foreseeable future. However, the shelter, which was already struggling to meet demand, advised those who may require housing services to “safety plan in advance with family or friends who you may be able to stay with if necessary” due to the potential of limited shelter availability. The organization is also making adjustments to communal living in the shelter in an effort to meet social distancing requirements, said Heidi Wooten, the President and CEO of Safehome.

Safehome’s other services, such as counseling, therapy and case management, are now taking place over the phone or videochat.

The Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA) is also moving the majority of their services — which include counseling, hospital advocacy and police and court advocacy for victims of sexual assault — to take place over the phone. They’ve increased staffing on their 24-hour hotline, which is how these services can be accessed.

Meanwhile, the Shawnee Mission School District is brainstorming how they will continue to provide social and emotional services to their students.

“We’re going to have to find a way to continue to make our staff, our school administrators, social workers, counselors and teachers accessible, so we can continue to play a role in ensuring students’ safety,” said Dr. John McKinney, Director of Family Services for SMSD. “That’s going to be a challenge. The devices help, but that can’t make up for the social interaction with one another.”

Each buildings’ counselors and social workers are still available to connect with students virtually, though they are working out how best to offer their services in the long run. Meetings between kids and social workers are typically private, but with students stuck at home, this privacy may be hard to replicate.

“As a social worker, (it’s important to be) able to have a kiddo at risk come into my office and share, ‘Mom’s drinking again,’ or, ‘Dad’s drinking again,’ and problem-solve with them individually and privately,” said Cathy Lorino, a social worker at Mission’s Rushton Elementary. “Now, developing a safety plan with kids, and having them be safe while they’re developing that, that will be very tricky.”

Social service professionals also continued to emphasize the importance of reporting any suspected abuse to the appropriate agency, and suggest making donations of money, gift cards or essential items to non-profits working on these issues.

Safehome is looking for individual refrigerators and microwaves to improve social distancing efforts, as well as grocery store gift cards. MOCSA accepts online donations here. The Sunflower House has an item and gift card wishlist here.

Resources

  • 911 — You can call or text 911 in all of the Kansas City Metro area
  • Report suspected child abuse to the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) protection report center at 800.922.5330.
  • Safehome’s hotline is available 24/7 at 913-262-2868
  • MOCSA’s crisis line is available 24/7 at 913-642-0233
  • KCSL’s parent helpline is available 24/7 at (1-800-CHILDREN) to answer queries from parents and caregivers trying to meet the challenges of raising children
  • Johnson County Mental Health Crisis Line is available 24/7 at 913-268-0156
  • Kansas City Anti-Violence Project has a 24/7 hotline available to provide information and support specific to LGBTQ survivors impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault and hate violence at 913-802-4014.
  • Youth Crisis Hotline is available 24/7 at 816-741-8700 or 888-233-1639
  • National Child Abuse Hotline is available to text, call or chat 24/7 at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)
  • The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network has an online chat option in addition to a 24/7 hotline at 800.656.4673
  • 1 in 6 has an an online chat option that works to serve the needs of male sexual assault survivors