During the height of the pandemic, while locked in our homes and isolated from what used to be our everyday lives, I couldn’t stop thinking about the immense impact COVID-19 would have on hundreds of thousands of abused children and families.

As the Executive Director of a domestic violence and sexual assault crisis center that serves the Greater Waterbury region, I specifically thought about the hundreds of children in and around Waterbury that our organization serves.

Children were not going to school every day, a place that serves as a safe haven for many. It is a place where teachers, counselors, and even administrators can identify signs of abuse, even more importantly during the early stages. I could not stop thinking about the children and families that we typically assisted, and how we couldn’t because schools were shut down due to COVID.

Among many of our services dedicated to children, mothers, and families impacted by domestic violence, Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury works directly with the Waterbury School system on cases of abuse that are identified by teachers or counselors within the schools. In these cases, we are a support system and send our child and family advocate to offer counseling, support, and various forms of assistance when school administrators identify abuse in a household, serving hundreds of individuals each year.

Unfortunately, here in Connecticut there is currently zero state funding for these child and family advocates. Throughout the pandemic, advocates have gone above and beyond for the children they serve, often stepping in to manage remote learning and stepping up to provide childcare when parents need to get to a job interview, or a job and other care hasn’t worked out. Yet currently, federal pass-through funds pay for only about a quarter of the cost of a full-time advocate at each of 18 domestic violence organizations in Connecticut, or $11,500 per position. This results in local providers, like mine, having to either raise funds privately to fully fund a position or have a staff member split their time across various functions, leaving less time for these child-focused purposes.

It’s a terrible choice, and one I wish we didn’t have to make. This year, there is a movement at the State Capitol in Hartford to secure $1.4 million in new state funding to cover the cost of 18 full-time child and family advocates. This number is less than .01 percent of Connecticut’s state budget, but it would be a lifeline to children who experience or witness violence in their homes, and I urge Waterbury area residents to contact their legislators and the Governor in support.

Here is just one recent story to help illustrate just how vital these services are. One Christmas Eve a few years ago, a woman — we will call her Jane Doe – and her children, were transported to our shelter. Jane and her two children, ages 8 and 6, were not safe because her abuser fled and was not yet arrested. As the shelter staff gave the family a tour of the shelter and completed their intake, Jane’s daughter sat with the child advocate. She commented how very upset she was because their family would not be at home on Christmas, so Santa would not be able to find her and her younger brother.

The child advocate tried to reassure her that Santa knows everything and that he would in fact be able to find them. When she was able, she asked Mom what the kids had on their Christmas list. Luckily, we keep a toy closet with brand new toys at our main office for occasions like this, or when a child has a birthday while in residence at the shelter. The child advocate came over to the main office, gathered toys, clothing and some items for Mom. She wrapped them and put them under the tree with the other gifts. When Jane and her family came down the stairs on Christmas morning and saw that Santa did in fact find them and leave presents, they were beaming.

This is just a small example of the amazing work child and family advocates do every day, in addition to the other duties like getting the children registered in school, arranging transportation to their home school, play therapy, one-on-one counseling, and so much more.

Connecticut should support these great workers and the families they serve by fully funding their positions, especially as the pandemic has made their work more important and more necessary than ever. The lives that advocates touch, and the work that they do, is quite frankly indescribable.

Lee Schlesinger, Executive Director of Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury