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CASA head says school closures put some kids at risk


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The ripples caused by social and business changes in recent weeks as restrictions have been put into place to stop the spread of COVID-19 also impact the well-being of the county’s youth, according to the head of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Chaves County.

Because public schools are closed, some youth are at greater risk than ever before, said Carrie Leigh Cloutier, chief executive officer of the local arm of the national organization that provides a range of services for minors whose cases of suspected abuse or neglect have ended up in the civil or criminal court system.

Cloutier explained that now some local children and teens will be “cooped up” in their homes for extended periods of time with families dealing with significant problems such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol addictions, physical disabilities, mental and behavioral health problems, job loss, hunger and the added stresses of trying to assist kids with online learning.

“Our staff is working night and day now to monitor and keep an eye on our kids,” Cloutier said.

In a letter issued Friday by the New Mexico Public Education Department to answer questions regarding the suspension of classroom instruction for public K-12 schools statewide and the shift to online learning for the remainder of the academic year, state leaders noted that calls to report suspected abuse to the state Children, Youth and Families Department have dropped since the state Executive Order to close public schools was first issued March 11.

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“Teachers and other mandatory reporters are the eyes and ears of the Children, Youth and Families Department,” the letter stated. But it also noted that community members can report suspected abuse or neglect to CYFD by calling 855-333-7233 from landlines or #SAFE (#7233) from mobile phones.

Cloutier said that local law enforcement agencies also are a good resource if people think youth in their neighborhoods are in danger.

From July 2018 to June 2019, Chaves County CYFD received 1,211 reports of child abuse or neglect, according to a CYFD annual report. Of those, 709 were accepted. The agency also completed 785 investigations in the county, substantiating 278 of those.

Cloutier said her organization has noticed in years past that abuse and neglect reports spike when schools open in the fall and teachers and school officials begin to interact with kids again. She said now the state’s youth are in an “extended summer.”

She did not have data showing an increase in caseloads or reports since the March school closures. But she added that call volume to staff is way up and her counselors have been on the phone frequently, some times through the night, with teenagers who are expressing thoughts of self-harm.

The state and national responses to COVID-19 impacts have been wide-ranging. They have included additional incentives to keep child care facilities operating and affordable, free meals for school-age children and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits to those who have been laid off, as well as to the self-employed or “gig” workers who have lost income.

But Cloutier said so far there has not been any additional funding or special planning regarding youth protection nonprofits. In fact, she said, CASA is operating with fewer resources during this current state of emergency and is seeking donations to support its 35 employees and its operations. Volunteers also are needed to add to its current group of about 50, but adults must complete training before they can start to work with youth.

People seeking assistance in dealing with stress and emotional issues during the COVID-19 situation can contact the New Mexico Crisis and Assistance Line, www.nmcrisisline.com or 855-662-7474.

Ideas for coping with COVID-19 impacts and lists of resources, including organizations operating in Chaves County, are also on the Pull Together website, pulltogether.org. That group, coordinated by CYFD, can also be contacted at 800-691-9067 or by email at info@pulltogether.org.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.


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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.