The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted existing gaps in support for Texas’ most vulnerable populations, including former foster youth and those who have experienced homelessness. It has also created new gaps in support, as youth who were already working to overcome difficult obstacles have been saddled with additional challenges — including job loss, school closures, isolation, loss of normalcy, and mounting tensions at home. As youth service providers take stock of our “new normal,” many worry that stressors from the pandemic are and will continue to exacerbate a range of issues, including child abuse, commercial sexual exploitation of youth, youth homelessness, and more.
Below, TNOYS reflects on how the current pandemic may impact youth and families now and in the coming months and years. We’ve provided takeaways and insight based on conversations with providers in our network, news reports, and research on how emergencies and related economic fallout impact vulnerable populations.
The Pandemic Is Increasing Stress on Families
Since March 2020, vulnerable Texans have been hit especially hard by stressors and obstacles from stay-at-home orders, causing a sharp increase in stress and anxiety at home. A sudden increase in economic and emotional stress is concerning for youth service providers, especially since research tells us that during public emergencies, mental health disorders, substance use, and child maltreatment increase.
What’s more, the pandemic presents the unique requirement that families “shelter-in-place” for long periods of time without breaks. While past crises such as natural disasters have necessitated a short-term shelter in place, the current months-long requirement is a new challenge for many families. Tensions are likely to rise, which may further increase the risk of negative consequences now compared to during other emergencies or disasters.
Child Abuse and Neglect Are Anticipated to Increase
Research shows that increases in violence and abuse often occur during emergencies, such as economic recessions and natural disasters. While Texas child abuse reports are down amid stay-at-home orders, youth service providers worry that reports will increase sharply once the pandemic subsides. Tragically, news reports are already suggesting that the rate and severity of child abuse are increasing in Texas, even if many cases are going unreported.
On top of the stress on families described above, school closures mean that the most consistent “safe place” in some youth’s lives is no longer available to them. What’s more, adults such as teachers, nurses, and counselors are unable to keep an eye on youth to ensure that they are safe and their basic needs are being met. This problem extends to Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) programs as well because most of these programs’ referrals come from schools. PEI programs, such as the Family and Youth Success Program (formerly known as STAR – Services To At Risk Youth), play an important role in reducing abuse and neglect because they help parents and youth learn to manage stress and better communicate with one another. With referrals down, many programs are finding new, creative ways to identify and connect with youth and families who need additional support during these stressful times.
Youth Homelessness May Increase
Child abuse and neglect doesn’t always look like bruises, broken bones, or malnourishment. Among older youth who are more likely to run away or be kicked out when there is abuse or neglect at home, abuse and neglect may manifest in dirty clothing or the need for a shower. Family conflict, abuse, and neglect at home are long-established causes of youth homelessness, and each of these issues may increase due to stressors during this time. As parents lose jobs or wages (and as a result potentially their housing as well), we will likely also see an increase in youth and children experiencing homelessness with their families.
Homelessness among young adults also has the potential to increase significantly. Many young adults who have overcome obstacles to become stable and self-sufficient have lost jobs during the last month as a result of the virus. This includes many youth who grew up in foster care or have experienced homelessness in the past. One TNOYS member organization reported an influx in former foster youth coming to them for help with completing unemployment applications. Another member organization reported that many of the young adults in its transitional living programs have lost jobs and may need to utilize services much longer than anticipated because of setbacks to their progress caused by the virus. There are also young people, including former foster youth, experiencing homelessness due to dorm closures.
Youth Are at Increased Risk of Commercial Sexual Exploitation
A lesson learned from TNOYS’ ongoing emergency preparedness and response initiative is that children, youth, and families who are displaced by a natural disaster experience trauma and instability that heightens their risk of victimization and exploitation. Similar to the consequences of a natural disaster, many vulnerable populations (including youth and young adults) are experiencing job loss, economic hardship, heightened stressors, and lack of stability or normalcy. These challenges create opportunities for predators to exploit vulnerable people who are in need of housing, food, and financial resources.
Adding to this increased risk for commercial sexual exploitation, many young people are spending significantly more unsupervised time on social media and online because of the “shelter in place” ordinances. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the majority of traffickers recruit children online through social networking sites and use the information obtained through these methods to relate to, and build trust with, children and youth more quickly. Additionally, more time online puts victims at greater risk and creates more time for grooming.
If commercial sexual exploitation of youth increases in the immediate future, many youth and young adults will likely face more obstacles in accessing services and support. Many shelters are already at capacity and may face challenges in increasing capacity due to resource limitations and social distancing measures. Moreover, victims may be less likely to show up at hospitals right now due to the health risks, and when they do show up, due to current limitations of visitors in hospitals, advocates are not able to join them to support them.
Facing COVID-19 with Resilience: Innovation and Hope for the Future
The situation is not all bleak. TNOYS is proud to see how our members and the staff at youth-serving organizations are stepping up to prioritize and serve Texas’ most vulnerable youth and families during these difficult times.
Major innovations and improvements are taking place that have the potential to improve support to youth and families for years to come. For example, services that were previously unavailable to those without access to transportation are now available virtually, including counseling services for families and drop-in center services for homeless youth and young adults. New regulatory flexibility permitting remote family visitation and court hearings means that more young people have the opportunity to maintain communication with family and to participate in hearings about their own court cases. While in person family visits are always ideal, the systems may increase opportunities for family contact and court engagement in the future when time and travel would otherwise not permit it. Additionally, there are leaders, including the Texas Education Agency, working to expand Internet access to those in remote areas who previously were disconnected from the virtual world.
TNOYS members are facing significant challenges right now and some are preparing for a more challenging future. But just like with the youth and families they serve, we will overcome the challenges that we are facing and come out stronger on the other side.
TNOYS has compiled a range of quality resources to assist your organization during this challenging time. Please be sure to review the following:
- Emergency Response Resource Center
- Resources and Information on COVID-19
- Youth Homelessness Resources
- Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Youth (CSEY) Resource Center
If you know of a youth or family who is in need of support, we encourage you to direct them to the Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) programs available in their county. To locate PEI programs — including Family and Youth Success Programs— please visit the DFPS program locator. You can also visit TNOYS’ provider directory for a complete list of providers across Texas who offer youth and family services.
If you have questions or information you would like to share with the TNOYS network, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.