Bright Spots is a Read Fort Worth series spotlighting meaningful work being done on behalf of children in our community.

In a time of school closures and social distancing guidelines, servicing the mental health and emotional needs of children is both challenging and necessary. Organizations such as Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County and Cook Children’s Medical Center make a difference by supporting children with care and understanding.

The mission of Communities In Schools (CIS) is built around empowering students to “stay in school and achieve in life.” In response to COVID-19 public safety concerns, Communities In Schools (CIS) had to rethink its methods in an ever-changing environment.

“Students still need connection to caring adults, those who are part of their ‘village’ outside the home, to provide social emotional and mental health support,” according to Lindsey Garner, President & CEO of CIS of Greater Tarrant County.

Normally, CIS partners with local school districts, including Fort Worth ISD, to place licensed social workers and mental health counselors directly on school campuses. They conduct in-depth needs assessments for at-risk students and their families, provide resource referral, social emotional support, and mental health counseling services. CIS also provides community trainings pertaining to social emotional learning, and mental health awareness and response.

School closures and community restrictions have shifted those in-person services to supporting students remotely, such as needs assessments and case management by phone and virtual visit, and providing mental health counseling via tele-therapy platforms. CIS has also compiled helpful resource lists and passed them on to school principals to disseminate to families.

“We’ve also made this information available on our website and through social media,” Garner added. “CIS will continue to shift its social emotional learning and mental health content to social media platforms such as YouTube, making it accessible to the community.”

CIS traditionally works with young learners in a school setting. Many of those services are now available remotely.

CIS has been reaching out to principals to gauge what they and students need. A list of resources for students and helping families access those services is available on the CIS website and has also been shared through social media. CIS is creating social emotional learning and mental health awareness training content related, which will be available to the community for free on CIS social media sites such as YouTube. CIS is also aiding families through its family crisis fund to meet emergency basic needs, such as rental and utility assistance, and transportation to local food banks and grocery stores.

Since more than 90 percent of the students CIS serves qualify for free and reduced lunch programs, providing meals is essential. FWISD is one of many area districts mobilizing locations to feed students.

“However, families are still in need of additional food to supplement,” Garner explained. “Additionally, some families struggle to access the meals provided by school districts because they lack transportation. Several districts have mobilized to use food trucks or school buses to deliver food. CIS has suggested that more of our partner districts do the same.”

CIS depends on the financial support of the community to continue its mission. Those wishing to donate may do so at cistarrant.org/donate.

Cook Children’s is ensuring the continuation of essential mental health support to children and families by shifting their work to comply with new CDC health guidelines while maintaining more critical care in the face of COVID-19 health directives. One of the consequences of this health crisis to children and families is Cook Children’s experiencing a rise in child abuse cases, in some cases resulting in deaths, which the hospital believes is linked to stresses from the coronavirus pandemic. In a recent report by CBS DFW, a Cook Children’s physician said the increased stress can be caused by financial reasons, families being confided to their homes for longer periods of time and the constantly news about the coronavirus on TV and social media.

Cook Children’s Behavioral Intake department remains open to parents in need of services for children and teens, and can be reached at 682-885-3917. Parents can also call that number for outpatient services.

“Our intake department is staffed by qualified mental health professionals who assist in initial assessment and triage to the appropriate level of care,” said Lena Zettler, Director of Department of Psychology for Cook Children’s, via email. “Also, our inpatient psychiatry program and psychiatry partial hospitalization programs are open, with some modifications to programming, to be consistent with CDC guidelines for group meetings. Clinical therapists continue to support medically ill children in the hospital with no interruption. Outpatient psychiatry and psychology are providing telehealth services.”

Cook Children’s expected child abuse cases to increase, but officials are surprised by how much it’s escalated. Zettler listed several reasons: 1) For some children, school may be the only consistent place where kids feel safe, supported, fed (physically and emotionally), etc., so without school, some kids are more vulnerable to abuse/neglect that predates the COVID-19 outbreak. 2) Some children with special needs or very young children need additional support that may not be available to families during this outbreak. 3) Families are stressed and isolated, and children/teens are vulnerable to the stress level of parents and caregivers during this time.

The team at Cook Children’s is working to overcome the challenges caused by the pandemic.

“Telehealth is helpful and a bridge, but it may not meet the needs for all children and families, especially if the child is young and or developmentally delayed,” Zettler wrote. “However, clinicians are adapting quickly; taking webinars, sharing ideas about how to adapt therapy techniques. A core component for all effective psychotherapy and family therapy is rapport between the therapist/psychologist and the client/family. Telehealth can challenge that.”

Community mental health providers are meeting weekly to collaborate on this crisis, evaluating gaps and beginning to discuss bridges. This is part of the Tarrant County Task Force, initiated by Judge Whitley, and the mental health task force is an offshoot. Cook Children’s participates in this effort.

The Cook Children’s Center for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect Child has additional information available at its website. If you are concerned about abuse or neglect and would like to follow up on a patient seen at Cook Children’s, contact the CARE Team at 682-885-3953. If you need to report a suspicion of abuse or neglect, call 1-800-252-5400 or go to txabusehotline.org. Childhelp.org also provides resources for both children and parents. The National Child Abuse Hotline is 1-800-422-4453.

Story by Art Garcia

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