Debbie Jensen thanked The Colony City Council on Tuesday for its continued support of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Denton County.
She said that support is needed more now than ever.
CASA of Denton County serves as an advocate for children who are removed from their homes because of severe abuse and neglect.
Jensen, the executive director of CASA of Denton County, said CASA of Denton County served 752 children in 2020, the most the organization has ever served. She said 29 of those were from The Colony.
She said the 752 children include ongoing cases from past years as well as new cases that came to the organization during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jensen said the main factors that lead to children getting in this situation are drug use by a caregiver, domestic violence and untreated mental illness.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown shined a light on the growing problem, Jensen said.
“More family stress put more families at risk,” Jensen said. “The abuse and neglect that children experienced was hidden from a long period of time. We feared this at the beginning of the pandemic, and it came true.”
Jensen told the council of a case in Carrollton where the children had been kept in a locked “dungeon-like” basement from the start of the shutdown to the time they were discovered in March.
“This happened because … they didn’t have the extended family coming into the home to see what was happening there,” she said. “They weren’t going to school, they had lost touch with their school.”
She said the quarantine also led to more drug use.
“Sadly it also caused more people to rely on drugs, to use drugs especially if they had an addiction problem,” Jensen said. “And we received several babies during this time who were born addicted or even born after the parents had overdosed on drugs.”
To make matters worse, she said, as the cases go up the number of CASA volunteers have gone down. Jensen said “COVID-19 fatigue” has created a severe shortage of trained advocates.
“We have advocates who are quitting, leaving because they are just worn out,” Jensen said, adding that it’s difficult to find new advocates for the same reason.
Jensen said CASA is also impacted by a statewide Child Protective Services (CPS) placement crisis as there aren’t enough foster homes or facilities to house children.
“We believe we have eight to 10 children who are staying at the CPS office in Denton County right now,” she said. “We have a couple of 3-year-olds staying there. It’s a really tough situation.”
But Jensen said CASA of Denton County has experienced some positives over the last year. She said the nonprofit completed a capital campaign that allows it to purchase, renovate and pay off a second building for more space.
She said the organization has no debt, so any money it brings in will go toward programs. It has rented out space to three tenants for more funding.
But she said the organization needs more volunteer advocates.
She said in 2020 there were 266 volunteer child advocates who served, including 17 from The Colony.
“They don’t by any means have to have a specific set of experiences,” Jensen said. “We train them in what they need to know in order to serve children.”
The Colony Mayor Pro Tem Richard Boyer, who began volunteering with the organization a year ago, attested to the organization’s work.
“There are some pretty amazing stories when you talk to some of the advocates,” Boyer said.
“It’s a bad situation when there are not enough volunteers to serve because of the high demand of children who are being removed from homes,” Boyer said. “There are 3-year-olds sleeping in an office because there aren’t enough placements for them.”
Jensen is hoping for more volunteers like Boyer.
“Our volunteers go out and gather that information that makes it a lot easier for the judge to feel they’re making a solid, informed decision about a child’s life,” Jensen said. “They get a lot more information about the child when we’re on the case, and they also feel that we give something to the child, and that’s hope.”