EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
BURNET — The 150 shoes hanging from trees on the Burnet County Courthouse lawn are reminders that, as most of us go on about our lives, there are approximately 150 children in Burnet County who are in foster homes because of abuse and/or neglect.
“That’s a significant number,” said Caroline Ragsdale, president of the Burnet County Child Welfare Board.
However, the shoes only count those children from Burnet County. Shannon Heep, the executive director of CASA for the Highland Lakes Area, which serves five counties, said the organization has seen a 26 percent increase of children removed from their homes by Child Protective Services over the past calendar year.
“There are a lot of kids here in this community who are victims of abuse and neglect,” Heep said. “It’s something we need to be aware of. It’s not just happening in big cities; it happens right here.”
Child welfare and service organizations in the Highland Lakes are putting in extra work this month to educate the public and build awareness of child abuse and neglect.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month.
The Burnet County Child Welfare Board hung the shoes in early April as a visual reminder. (The shoes will be removed prior to the Burnet Bluebonnet Festival, which starts April 13.)
Ragsdale said it’s often hard to imagine that, in a community such as Burnet County, CPS has to remove so many children from their homes and either place them with a non-offending relative or in a foster home.
“In Burnet County, eight out of 10 (children) removed are from a drug home,” she said. “That’s pretty staggering.”
Heep’s information concurs with Ragsdale’s assessment.
“A big part of the increase in removals is the methamphetamine problem in the area,” Heep said. “It’s sad and tragic, especially the effect it has on kids.”
During April, organizations such as CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, county child welfare boards, Hill Country Children’s Advocacy Center, and Highland Lakes Family Crisis Center are reaching out to other groups, community leaders, and even governing bodies to build awareness that child abuse and neglect exist in the Highland Lakes.
Though it’s a start, awareness isn’t enough. Youth advocates stress that it’s important to recognize the signs of potential abuse and report it to the proper authorities.
“We can get into all the different signs and details of what child abuse looks like,” Heep said, “but, really, it comes down to common sense. We all know or have children in our lives, so we know when something doesn’t look or feel right. And we can’t be afraid to say something if you suspect something.”
Ragsdale went a step further.
“If you suspect child abuse or know of it, it’s the law, you have to report it,” she said.
People can report suspected or known child abuse to local law enforcement agencies or through the state child abuse hotline at 1-800-252-5400.
“You can remain anonymous,” Ragsdale added.
Once a report comes in, and CPS and law enforcement investigate and remove children from the home if necessary, the process doesn’t end there. In fact, in many ways, it’s only just beginning.
Ragsdale said CPS tries to place the children with a non-offending family member, especially if they’re located in a nearby community. This is so the children retain some level of normalcy in their lives.
If that’s not an option, CPS looks for a foster home.
“The problem is, we don’t have enough foster homes in Burnet County for all the children who need them,” she said. “So this sometimes means the kids have to be placed in foster care outside the area.”
This takes the children away from school, friends, and activities, compounding the issue.
“We really need more foster families and homes,” Ragsdale said.
CASA for the Highland Lakes Area also needs people willing to serve as specially trained volunteers who advocate for children removed from their homes due to neglect and/or abuse. These volunteers, often referred to as CASAs, act as the eyes and ears of the court and look out for the children and their needs. Under Texas law, CPS and the courts have a year to either reconcile the families or seek another permanent home situation for the children.
Heep realizes not everyone wants to commit to being a CASA but still want to help. The organization created Friends of CASA for those volunteers.
“Friends of CASA is for local businesses, social groups, people, or organizations who want to help out but maybe not become (CASAs),” she said. “We have a lot of ways people can help us and help the kids.”
Several city councils and county courts are signing proclamations signifying April as Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month. Ragsdale and the Burnet County Child Welfare Board are asking residents to wear blue on April 29 for Blue Sunday, a day set aside to build awareness about child abuse.
CASA for the Highland Lakes Area and the Daybreak Rotary Club of Marble Falls are hosting a bell-ringing ceremony Tuesday, April 24, to honor child abuse victims. The event is 6-6:30 p.m. at Johnson Park, 230 Avenue J in Marble Falls.
Go to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services website at dfps.state.tx.us for more information on child abuse awareness. Visit highlandlakescasa.com for more about CASA for the Highland Lakes Area.