Students experiencing abuse at home still getting services through schools, Metro Health despite pandemic challenges

Virtual counseling and sessions have allowed more family members to participate

SAN ANTONIO – School used to be a safe haven for children experiencing or witnessing abuse at home. The pandemic era has changed that and has even seen a spike in domestic violence, so a support organization helping local students is changing, too.

“Big changes. We definitely have seen a huge transition into telehealth support,” said Veronica Sandoval, a clinical caseworker for Communities in Schools of San Antonio, or CISSA.

The CISSA program has more than 20 local caseworkers, and Sandoval is one of three working specifically on domestic violence and trauma cases. She focuses on Northside ISD, while the other two caseworkers focus mainly on San Antonio ISD and East Central ISD.

Sandoval said virtual counseling poses challenges, but it also has its advantages.

“We can serve students from different schools at the same time. A lot of times, students want their siblings to participate, and we can have parents log in during their lunch hour and be able to be a part of that process,” she said. “We also provide services to the siblings, even if they don’t go to school in the same district. It’s the whole family.”

Referrals for students slowed a bit at the beginning of the pandemic, but now they’re pouring in for CISSA.

“Friends and family, and parents and teachers making those referrals, site coordinators making those referrals,” Sandoval said.

Police also make those referrals through the San Antonio Police Department’s Handle with Care program. Officers at domestic violence scenes alert school districts if children are involved.

“We will still send that notification to the school, and then the school will use the protocol they’ve set in place to go follow up with that student. Sometimes it’s a home visit. Sometimes it’s a virtual check-in; it’s a phone call,” said SAPD Officer Doug Greene, who is SAPD’s Handle With Care Program liaison.

Greene said the spike in domestic violence calls during the pandemic has been noticeable.

“You have a lot of families that are under the pressure of not only COVID but loss of jobs, loss of homes, illness in the family. There are just so many more elements in today’s household that cause these very emotional reactions between family members, so we’re definitely seeing a rise in it,” he said. “Little did we know when we started Handle with Care a few years ago how vital it was going to be, especially now.”

Once referrals come into CISSA, clinical caseworkers, like Sandoval, offer families essential resources, connect them to social workers, help them form a safety plan for escaping violent homes, and enroll the students and siblings in counseling and even group sessions.

“We have groups in conflict resolution, anger management, with a goal to be able to provide team support in regard to self-esteem building and anything that has effect after they have witnessed domestic violence,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval said it was usually difficult to coordinate group sessions since students were only allowed to go during elective classes. Now, with students being at home with more time flexibility, they can engage with other students going through similar trauma.

“They realize they’re not alone,” Sandoval said.

Anyone who wants to refer a student who may need these services can call the child’s school or district counseling department.

Greene also wants families to know they can always get in contact with police about domestic violence situations.

If there is an emergency, call 911. However, if you need help with safety plans or police resources, call the non-emergency number (210) 207-7273 or contact your area’s SAPD substation. Every substation, including Public Safety Headquarters downtown, has a Crisis Response Team comprised of officers and advocates who specifically work with domestic violence victims.

For a list of other resources, head to KSAT’s Domestic Violence Resource Page. For similar stories, head to KSAT’s Loving in Fear Page.

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