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A look at how the pandemic impacts the community's most vulnerable people

A look at how the pandemic impacts the community's most vulnerable people

Only $3 for 13 weeks

Once the pandemic restrictions are behind us and life goes mostly back to normal, there’s going to be a lot of catching up with the vulnerable populations.

That seems to be the assessment of experts who help people with troubled home lives.

Ridgeway OB-GYN Dr. Makunda Abdul-Mbacke warns that the fabled pandemic baby boom is real – to teenage mothers, no less.

Ricky Walker, interim director of Court-Appointed Youth Advocates/FOCUS on Youth and the director of operations for ANCHOR Commission, said more kids will need more help through the court systems.

And Shawan Barr, executive director of Southside Survivors Response Center, warned that once the boon of the government’s extra financial assistance comes to an end, some families will have a hard time dealing with the end of the government’s extra financial assistance.

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Kids through court

CASA volunteers are advocates for children who are affected by their families’ court cases. They interview the families and children; work with social services and the guardian ad litem “to figure out what is the best course of action for this child” and make court appearances. Each case requires about 15 to 20 hours of time.

“We stand by and be that voice for the child and the family that may be from an underserved population,” Walker said. The agency has been helping about 18 children lately, he added.

The lockdown “has had a tremendous effect in the way that we do things,” he said.

CASA volunteers normally make home visits to check on the children they represent and their families. Since the pandemic, many volunteers are conducing “virtual visits,” while those who feel comfortable visiting in homes do so with personal protective equipment, such as gloves, masks and hand sanitizers, provided by the agency.

Some volunteers “have had to take a step back due to health concerns or being in a high-risk group,” he said.

Because court dates have been postponed during the pandemic, “a lot of cases have extended much longer than normal” – and that leaves affected children in the lurch.

CASA is in a recruitment drive.

“We’d love to get at least a dozen active volunteers,” Walker said, and they’re nearly at the halfway point.

A 12-week training period will begin when the group is large enough, he said.

CASA is funded mostly from localities, with about five percent of fundraising including one that normally is done with an annual poor man’s supper, which was cancelled this year.

Since the courts “have just opened back in the last couple of weeks – because everybody’s been unable to access the courts in so long – we’re expecting a big surge of cases in the coming months and really need volunteers, worse now than we’ve ever needed them,” he said.

Among other things, ANCHOR Commission runs a group home and shelter care for boys. The homes shut down for seven weeks in the spring following the governor’s lockdown orders. However, there was only one boy being sheltered at that time, and his time was almost up anyway, Walker said.

Usually between three and nine boys are sheltered there at a time, he said.

Referrals are slow now, “not that the kids don’t need the help. It’s that the attention is not being put on them. There are definitely kids out there that need the help,” he said.

As postponed court cases resume, “we’ll be seeing more referrals.”

ANCHOR Commission also runs two substance abuse programs, a co-parenting class, “aggression replacement training” (formerly called anger management), a transitional day program with local schools, substance abuse services via telehealth and other programs.

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Teens home alone

Meanwhile, since the lockdown started and teenagers suddenly were at home alone all day instead of school, “There’s been an increase from my patients between 16-19 years old that are pregnant,” Abdul-Mbacke said: “Girls coming back from college that have been pregnant, the high school girls that have been pregnant.”

When people talk about childcare needs when schools were closed, the focus was on young kids, but teenagers need watching too, she said.

“For most of moms and dads, they’ve been working this whole time, so who’s been watching the kids? You feel like you can comfortably leave your 16 year old at home, not thinking you have to do X, Y and Z to have someone watch her.”

She might see five or six new pregnant teenage girls a week, she said.

“Also, I’ve seen some parents bring their girls by the scruff of their neck and be sure they get on birth control. There’s definitely some parents that have been proactive knowing that these are the possibilities – these are the realities.”

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SSRC

Shawan Barr has been the executive director of Southside Survivor Response Center since March.

“Domestic violence and sexual assault are our foundation” of assistance to the community, but the mission of SSRC goes much further, she said. The organization also helps with “homelessness, any crisis they find themselves in,” and clients include some men as well as women.

“We need to prepare for when the pandemic lifts,” she said. “Everybody who was in hiding, not knowing what to do, they’re going to need help.”

The “extra money” people have received from sources such as the economic stimulus funds and the unemployment insurance with the extra $600 a week from the federal government have gotten people used to extra spending than they may have done before, she said, and perhaps even helped fuel some bad habits. It will be difficult for people in that situation to go back to stricter budgets.

The SSRC operates a 14-bed shelter where victims of domestic abuse can stay temporarily to get out of bad or dangerous situations at home. During the pandemic, the SSRC set up people and families in need at area hotels and motels.

Funding for the hotel stays comes from The Resilience Project and the Rapid Rehousing Project which the SSRC has had since the start of the year, as well as “additional funds that came due to COVID-19,” she said.

The shelter is in Martinsville, but the SSRC serves people also in the counties of Patrick, Franklin, Pittsylvania and Henry, as well as the city of Danville, she said. With the use of hotels, people can stay in the communities where they live.

Normally, between eight and eleven people stay in the shelter, she said, but with the hotel program, lately the number of clients being housed ranges from 25 to 30.

Though there is a variety of financial protections in place now to help people through the pandemic lockdown, those first few weeks before they took effect took its toll on the most financially vulnerable who were living paycheck to paycheck. As the first wave of people lost their jobs before the economic stimulus checks and extra unemployment insurance came in, many lost their housing because they couldn't pay rent.

Apart from that group of vulnerable people, though, the pandemic seems to have brought about an odd type of stability for many families who otherwise might find themselves in dire straits.

The level of family violence seems to be “kind of right there in the middle,” she said. “A lot of times, domestic violence is the outcome of something else that’s going on. It’s secondary” to key problems.

“Because people are financially able to receive monies through these different and pandemic resources, people are able to cope a little bit better when they can pay their bills and feed their families.

“That is why we want to stay connected to the resources: to maintain the harmony that seems to be in place.”

The question here is what’s going to happen “once the money stops flowing – when everybody goes back to work” and the household routine shifts again.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

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