Across Texas, youth and family service providers are working on new strategies to keep youth safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. STARRY, headquartered in Round Rock, is one such organization: STARRY serves as the Family and Youth Success (formerly known as “Services to At Risk Youth”) Program for 31 counties in Central, North, Northeast, and Northwest Texas, providing counseling and support to thousands of children, youth and families per year.
While STARRY typically provides services to clients across a wide spectrum of needs and demographics, the safety of youth and families during this pandemic is top of mind in everything they do. Sadly, reports suggest that the pandemic is creating unsafe home environments for children, and several news outlets have already reported on tragic child fatalities due to abuse that are likely linked to stressors from the coronavirus.
STARRY Chief Program Officer Jessica Kilpatrick explained that their counselors are seeing a noticeable increase in anxiety, stress, and behavioral issues. As such, one of their main priorities at this time is to help keep homes safe by working with families to defuse stressful situations, and address behavioral issues. This includes educating parents about childhood development so that they know how to respond to challenges, and helping them navigate difficult conversations about COVID-19.
Other Family and Youth Success Program providers are helping to bring safety and stability to homes by ensuring that families’ basic needs are met. STARRY’s President, Richard Singleton, explained that many Family and Youth Success Program providers work with families who are also struggling to access food and pay bills, in addition to dealing with stress from stay-at-home orders. As Richard Singleton noted,
“I know that a lot of providers in rural areas are struggling to serve youth and families at this time. They (families) are often not able to do remote case management, because they don’t have the technology. In a lot of situations, abuse is no doubt on the rise, and the lack of connection that families and youth previously had to outstanding service providers is no doubt a significant challenge for families. For families that already struggled to have basic needs met…the stress and anxiety is skyrocketing.”
Richard noted that Family and Youth Success Program providers who work in higher-needs areas have developed strategies to spot potentially abusive situations. Some providers have introduced a “code word” that clients can use over the phone to alert their counselors to abuse. Providers have also ramped up their efforts to distribute essentials such as food and diapers, and assist families with issues such as filing for unemployment, and accessing rental assistance.
New Efforts to Connect with Clients
Not only are families and youth in need of increased support, many are now cut off from their typical support channels. School closures in Texas have made it more difficult for families to connect with the services, since youth are typically referred to Family and Youth Success Programs through schools. What’s more, many clients live in areas with unreliable internet access, causing them to be even further disconnected from services.
Richard explained that STARRY is leaving “no stone left unturned” in their outreach efforts to identify family and youth in need of extra support, especially when it comes to high-risk zip codes. They have increased their Facebook advertising, sent out press releases, conducted live streaming events and television interviews, and they are also placing radio ads when possible in high-needs communities that lack reliable internet. They’re also working with partners on outreach: STARRY partnered with Georgetown ISD to include informational pamphlets in food distribution to students, partnered with the Waco HOPES program for a bilingual livestream, and they’ve reached out to local CPS offices for help with spreading the word about no-cost youth and family services, such as family and individual counseling or crisis intervention.
Providing a Support System During COVID-19
As the pandemic continues, STARRY’s Family and Youth Success Program is focused on providing a much-needed support system for families. Jessica Kilpatrick explained that because families can’t rely on the support systems they had previously, STARRY is often the only place a family can turn. As Jessica noted,
“We’ve heard from families that our counselors are the only people outside the home that they’ve seen in weeks. (Clients) really look forward to calls, just to have someone outside of the family to talk to. They may not have a support system outside of their normal day-to-day (while under stay-at-home orders)”.
Most importantly, STARRY’s counselors are doing everything they can to be responsive and observant of each families’ needs, and to be on the lookout for factors that may contribute to a potentially harmful situation. As Jessica explained,
“They say that more than half of (abuse reports) come from schools and doctors…On a recent call with staff, we discussed that we might be the only people seeing these kids for the next month or so. We are the eyes on the children, and it’s important to make sure that the safety of our children is always at the forefront of our minds.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, STARRY has compiled many blog posts to assist other service providers. Check out STARRY’s blog here.
To learn more about STARRY and available support during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit http://www.starry.org/.