This is bigger than e-learning, part 4

Posted on September 4th, 2020

How the Pandemic will Impact Youth

Authors: Carey Haley Wong, Chief Legal Counsel at Child Advocates, Katherine Meger Kelsey, Director of the Children’s Law Center at Kids’ Voice of Indiana

Last week we heard from several judicial officers who handle cases involving families in crisis. This week we will hear from a juvenile public defender, a detective, and two guardians ad litem. Together, they will help create a clearer and more comprehensive picture as to how our community’s at-risk children are truly impacted. This is not solely a public health, academic, or economic crisis. Unfortunately, the pandemic’s reach has touched many aspects of society and impacted pre-existing issues such as domestic violence and substance abuse in the worst of ways.

Domestic violence does not only damage the target of the partner’s rage, but also the child or children who bear witness to the violence. Exposure to such violence at an early age can have devastating impacts on children, affecting their emotional, social, and developmental well-being for many years thereafter. Reports from across the globe express concern over the startling increase in domestic violence and how this will impact the global community’s youth for years to come. In addition, further reports showing a similar spike in overdose and relapse across the nation have also been released, and there is talk of an immediate need for communal action.

Despite these challenges, there is still reason for hope and optimism. The professionals and other adults we speak to as part of this series are truly concerned about the welfare of our children and many, like them, have committed their lives to counteracting the devastating effects of violence on children. They are aware of the problems we, as a whole, face today and are always educating themselves on how to best tackle those issues.

We asked a few questions to professionals serving today’s at-risk youth. This week we hear from:

  • Rachel Roman-Lagunas, Public Defender, Juvenile Division
  • Alane Singleton, Guardian Ad Litem Supervisor, Child Advocates
  • Derek Cress, Detective
  • Brian Robinson, Guardian Ad Litem

How are you doing in these times? What does an average day look like?

Brian Robinson: I have a lot more virtual contact with kids. A lot more phone calls.  I work with teenagers primarily and have had to continue some face-to-face visits during COVID.

Derek Cress: The quarantine has definitely been challenging for those of us in the law enforcement field, but I believe we’ve learned to adapt and overcome many of the obstacles throughout this pandemic to continue a commitment for public safety. Our investigators receive daily and weekly crime tips and case assignments concerning internet crimes against children.

Rachel Roman-Lagunas: I start a little later than normal and go into my office about 50% of the time to get away from my four children. My hearings are all by WebEx. Meetings are all by Zoom/WebEx/Microsoft teams. I don’t see my clients in person ever. I do stay in touch with them about the same though – by phone, WebEx/detention meetings weekly, and Zoom CFTMs  (child family team meetings).

Alane Singleton: I am feeling a bit of “cabin fever.”  I feel like I have to get out of the house to have a break or myself since my husband is also working from home and the kids are home as well. I typically get up and check emails and then I have my designated staffing times.

What are you seeing during COVID-19 times that you did not see before?

Brian Robinson: On the negative side, things fall through the cracks across the board and that directly impacts the kids I work with.

Derek Cress: We are currently seeing an uptick in cases concerning child sexual exploitation and abuse material.

Rachel Roman-Lagunas: Judges feel a little more pressure to release kids, and we are working with DOC (Department of Corrections) to try and release kids “early” (really, just when they are done with treatment). I wish there was always this pressure to get kids out of locked facilities as soon as possible. Our statute says least restrictive, yet especially in DCS (Department of Child Services) cases, residential facilities seem to be the “go to.” That has not changed. But in delinquency proceedings, judges really have tried to keep detention numbers down.

What are your biggest concerns right now regarding the children you work with or are responsible for?

Brian Robinson:  There is a saying in the black community that when white America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia.  In the same vein, foster youth will be more impacted than kids from healthy environments. So we have to keep eyes on that.

Rachel Roman-Lagunas: Children in residential facilities, especially those placed under the CHINS cases. They cannot see family and tend to have very little information regarding their case. Also, children transitioning to college from low-income families or foster care. It’s so hard for them to have a “normal” social life right now, and most cannot go to in-person classes.

Alane Singleton: Not physically being able to see the kids and trusting that the measures that are currently in place (virtual assessment) are safe for the kids. Also that we as GALs (Guardians ad Litem) are getting truthful and factual information from the kids since the parents (or other adults) are there and the kids may not be able to have a private conversation about their feelings, concerns, safety issues, and generally what they want.

Derek Cress: In today’s society, digital devices (smart phones, computers, tablets, etc.) can be a wonderful addition to a child’s life.  The internet can be a great resource for education, communication, and entertainment.    However, when technology is used to facilitate crimes against children, the adverse effects of child sexual exploitation can be devastating to a child victim and their families.  We continue to combat this problem with two goals in mind.  First, we maintain enforcement of child sexual exploitation laws against the adult offenders who commit these crimes against children.  Secondly, we educate children, parents, and guardians through the use of presentations, publications, and one-on-one interactions on the importance of operating safely on the internet.

In your line of work, what is the biggest need you see for kids?

Brian Robinson: Financial assistance. I work mainly with older youth, so I worry about kids who are in apartments. Their cases close and they have to fend for themselves. It’s more than we expect from our own kids.  There also needs to be more people working with older youth who have the right experience with those youth – to know what is normal for teens, to help push through the red tape.

Derek Cress: Communication is one of the biggest needs for children and their families when it concerns internet safety.  It’s imperative that parents and/or guardians monitor their child’s internet usage to ensure safety measures are in place.  By establishing a line of communication with your children, they are more likely to report inappropriate online behavior to a trusted adult such as a parent, guardian, teacher, or a law enforcement official. There are many services available which include the following: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)-provides assistance to law enforcement, children, and families concerning online safety measures.  Indiana State Police Youth Educator Programs-works closely with law enforcement, schools, and communities to aid in awareness through presentations. A new online resource, www.culturereframed.org, is specifically designed to educate and provide resources for teens, tweens, and their families.

Rachel Roman-Lagunas: Employment, and a good social system/mentors.

Alane Singleton: Safety and stability.

What could (schools, attorneys/courts, doc offices, etc.) do differently if we ever see a situation like this again? 

Brian Robinson: Really, most sectors seem to have followed the guidance of health departments.  We have to follow the guidance of experts.

Derek Cress: They should continue to maintain communication with children, parents and/or guardians on the importance of instilling online safety measures and following the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) reporting requirements to ensure the safety of children.

Rachel Roman-Lagunas: We should not be placing kids in detention or residential facilities unless ALL community-based programs/services/options are exhausted. There should be constant pressure to get kids out of these facilities.