How Children at Risk is responding to COVID-19

Children at Risk is a research and advocacy organization focusing on a broad range of children’s issues including education, parenting and family well-being, health and nutrition, immigration, and human trafficking.  

They work across Texas to get the voices of working families, and the people who serve children and families, in order to create an advocacy and policy agenda at the state level.

As a result, Children at Risk is always working with the Texas legislative session in mind. They collaborate with similar non-profits and policy advocates, and work carefully with legislators to inform policies that affect child care, education, and the well-being of children.

We sat down with Anna Hardway, Chief Program Officer and Sara Moran, Associate Director, Center for Social Measurement & Evaluation to learn how Children at Risk is working to help children in response to COVID-19.

Children at Risk's Human Trafficking Day at the Capital
Advocates from across the state gather for Children at Risk’s Human Trafficking Day at the Capital.
Image credit: Children at Risk

What is Children at Risk doing in response to COVID-19?

We’re taking our three pronged approach and we’re using it for COVID-19.

We are convening a greater Houston group and a statewide group to respond.

We are focusing on research and getting the information out into the hands of people on the ground. Helping families and organizations that support children really understand the situation.

And we are advocating. We are creating a call to action on various issues across the state. Some of those issues are related to work we’re already doing, and some are new issues that surfaced as a result of recent collaborations.

Can you explain the history of the Children’s Resiliency Collaborative, and how it will change in the future?

After Hurricane Harvey there were a lot of organizations trying to figure out what they were doing in response to the disaster. Where was the money going to come from? What is the community strategy?

Children at Risk saw that there was a need to convene different types of stakeholders, so there was a more collaborative effort in the community, rather than lots of duplicate work.  That’s how the Children’s Resiliency Collaborative started. There was a need to collaborate.

The primary goals of the collaborative are to get the information out, build collaborative networks, and develop a call to action.

And it’s a level playing field. Everybody in the collaborative gets an opportunity to talk about what they’re doing and ways to connect with one another. We’re all pulling together in the same direction.

Some of the issue areas that we’ve identified as a group are Pre-K through 12 education needs, early childhood, child safeguarding, and housing.

Today, some of the same groups are still involved in what we now call the Coronavirus Children’s Resiliency Collaborative (CCRC). Organizations like Houston Food Bank, United Way and Catholic Charities are always involved. The children’s hospitals and school districts are always involved, too.  We also have a lot of smaller organizations.  Even groups that were created specifically to respond to this disaster. This gives the meetings a lot more authenticity and diversity.

It’s also important that we get people from public agencies involved. It’s one thing to write policy and get laws passed, but it’s the agencies that have to interpret the laws and help people understand how to access the resources.

We started talking about rebooting the collaborative around March 6, and we had our first convening the very next week.

Childcare experts from across the state participate in Children at Risk’s first virtual roundtable during COVID-19.
Image credit: Children at Risk

How are you seeing children and families impacted by Covid-19? What are the big issues?

We’re seeing a lot of concerns about parents having to stay home with children and work from home. Parents are trying to learn how to navigate their children’s education while simultaneously trying to do their own work. Parents and teachers alike are very stressed.

We’re also seeing concerns about the digital divide where some kids may not be getting the same access and education as others.

We’re concerned about child care providers being able to stay open and serve their community.

We’re also concerned about first responders being able to get and afford the care they need for their children. A lot of families have lost stable sources of income.

Nutrition is also a concern. In Pre-K through 12, a lot of the children who were previously getting meals at school are not having that available.

Many of the referral systems that help kids on a daily basis come through schools, their pediatricians, or family members. It’s like a three legged stool.  But now schools are gone.  You can try to interpret a child’s behavior through Zoom, and schools are doing the very best that they can, but it’s not the same as being in a room with them and seeing all their body language.

The “well child” and maintenance visits to the pediatrician are not happening, either. They’re mostly canceled. We’re hearing this over and over again. We held a statewide convening of the Texas Family Leadership Council  recently, and we’re hearing this is an issue all over the state.

We also have concerns about the safety of families in situations where there is abuse. Before, they may have been able to get away from their abuser and go to school, or their abuser might be at work, but now there’s no separation.

That really dovetails into mental health in general. Parents are more stressed. A parent that might not have been abusive before may not have the resources they need now to de-stress.

How is child care and early education being impacted?

Child care and early education have a lot of the same challenges as any service industry. There’s a lot of concerns with staff that are going out and meeting people – staff who are out with the public all the time.

The teachers for Early Childhood Education provider centers generally don’t have any kind of health care. Generally speaking, they don’t really have any way of taking leave to take care of their own family.

We’re concerned about the practitioners serving the kids and the people who own the centers that are trying to make ends meet during this time. The State has made many strides to try and ensure centers stay funded, but it may not be enough for what are small businesses that run on very small margins.

We’re also concerned about connecting families with quality care providers. It’s hard enough to get quality child care when things are going well, but it’s even more difficult when things are stressful.

Many child care directors and owners join this field because they are nurturers, not because they love business. It can be challenging for many owners to look at an SBA loan and make sense out of it. That is something that a few of our partners are trying to address – if they are even eligible for those loans.

In Houston, child care center owners need help figuring out how to reopen if they’ve had to close, how to stay in contact with their families, and how to market themselves in a different way. This is not the kind of stuff that a center director thinks about on a day-to-day basis, and especially right now.  Thankfully, there are many local, state and national organizations that are working hard to advocate for more considerations and supports, to ensure folks can get back to work when the time comes.

Organizations like Collaborative for Children and University of Houston-Clear Lake are trying to help meet this need with training and support locally, but it’s not enough. There is much more to do.

There is a concession now for feeding programs that allows a closed child care center to provide meals with very minimal paperwork if the number of free and reduced meals in their school district is high enough. And they want to do that. They just want to help their community and help their families.

The federal government has done a good job of creating a lot of waivers. The real question is if we can make it easy during a disaster, then why do we have to make it so difficult when it’s not a disaster? We’re asking that question over and over and over again, and not just with child care.

What issue around children and families is not being brought up enough right now?

Probably the biggest thing that nobody’s talking about right now is that fewer immigrant families are going to get tested.

Even if we can figure out a way to test anonymously, we can’t guarantee their safety. It’s very relevant here in Texas right now. It’s in our faces.

During our CCRC meeting a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Bob Sanborn, our CEO and one of the group’s co-chairs mentioned this issue to everybody, and within 48 hours the mayor said he was going to make an announcement about it. That speaks to the power of a collaborative group.

What can the community do to help?

There are a lot of great causes out there, and it’s harder for nonprofits to raise money in this environment. I know that we had to move a lot of our fundraising to virtual events, and many organizations are switching priorities.

If people want to support organizations they know are doing good work, now’s a really good time to do that.

My advice is to think about what organizations will be doing the hard work in six months. Those are your advocacy organizations, and others who are trying to get folks to collaborate and address the issues that surface during the emergency response.

Too many times, I’ve walked into warehouses full of bleach months after a disaster hits, and it’s not doing anybody any good. Sometimes, millions of dollars of stuff just sits there when all of those resources could be going toward longer term changes.

We also have a great opportunity to rethink our systems. We have an opportunity to rethink healthcare. We have an opportunity to rethink education.

If we could flip a switch and go back to normal, I don’t think it would fix the underlying problems that we can now address. I think the more we can say that and open up conversations the better. 

I know it’s been said to be death but I just want to encourage everybody to stay home as much as possible so we’re not putting any extra stress on healthcare providers or any kind of service providers.

Carly Sessions

Carly is a social worker turned technologist who is passionate about using data to improve the social safety net.