During the recent sunny spring weather, it was almost possible for me to forget life has changed. But then, I would see children and their parents walking with masks on, and it would all come rushing back.
Evidence of the COVID-19 pandemic is all too visible, including the constant stream of numbers about patients and deaths, shuttered stores, mounting debts, lines of people in cars waiting for food, and hospital workers in protective suits.
The tragic repercussions have also hit many families in ways less visible. You can’t see stress, but you can feel it. Trauma, too, is taking a toll. Added anxiety about jobs, money and health has led people to lash out at the closest targets. And, when families are cooped up for long times, those targets can be children.
In March, when the changes wrought by the virus began to sink in, the San Antonio Police Department reported 911 calls for family violence rose 18 percent over the same time last year while the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office charted an 11 percent increase in reports of abuse.
Family violence can be hard to detect in the best of times, but during the pandemic, it’s even less apparent. Normally, most reports of child abuse and neglect come from medical or law-enforcement professionals or educators who are close enough to children to observe the warning signs. But with schools closed, personal contact is less immediate, and social distancing has made visiting clinics, doctors’ offices, and the emergency room, or contact with officers and social workers, more complicated.
From the Bexar County Family Justice Center to Family Violence Protection Services and ChildSafe, those on the front lines of child abuse are on high alert.
Peter Sakai, the 225th state district court judge, is no stranger to the signs. He’s nationally recognized as a leader in dealing with abused and neglected youngsters and families shattered by substance abuse — problems often concurrent.
“We do have an uptick in child-abuse cases,” Sakai recently told me. “Going through tough times can create kind of a perfect storm. We’re seeing signs of stress in mental-health cases. We know our safety net is stretched to the max.”
Last summer, Sakai, 150th Civil District Court Judge Monique Diaz and Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger were named co-chairs of a new city-county collaborative tasked with finding ways to reduce family violence.
“We were really making progress until this crisis hit,” Sakai said.
Yet Sakai, who has seen some of the worst cases of child abuse during his years on the bench, still stresses the potential silver lining in this massive dark cloud.
Ordinary people in every neighborhood have responded to this emergency in extraordinary fashion. Families and neighborhoods have joined forces. Drive-by celebrations and care package drop-offs are the joyful part of the “new normal.”
“When we’re not in crisis, we may not think about how important it is to come together as a supportive community. Now, I think it will fall upon families to come together,” Sakai told me. “It’s a time for the faith-based community and the mental-health community to find new ways to bring people together. This is the time to learn how to be a family again. This is a time to take care of the kids.”