Shining a Light in Dark Places: #iamregion8

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Miriam Sitz 2014 headshotIn Bexar County, an area with a youth population of 484,144, some 5,846 children are confirmed victims of abuse or neglect, according to the 2013 Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) report.

That’s one out of every 82 children in Bexar County. In fact, Bexar County has the second highest victimization rate in the state of Texas.

Further, Bexar County sits at the heart of DFPS’ region 8 foster system (there are 11 regions in Texas), where 14 children (10 of whom were in Bexar County) died as a result of abuse in 2013.

Partners List Region 8 ranks second and third in the state in terms of numbers of children entering (3.7) or already under (6.6) state care per 1,000.

The numbers are harsh and telling. Child abuse and neglect are incredibly serious problems right here in our own city.

How serious is the problem? Take some time to read the ground-breaking investigative journalism that Express-News reporter Melissa Stoeltje has done over the years on the Sarah Basse case. Click here to begin reading. It’s an Orwellian nightmare that many people find hard to believe: How could the system be so broken and even after exposure, remain so resistant to reform? It’s a question that perhaps is best explored by artists and actors.

Region 8 is a forthcoming theatrical work that seeks to bring attention to this harsh reality, both asking questions and providing some answers. The show looks at the lives of three individuals working as a child advocate, foster parent, and a Child Protective Services (CPS) investigator. The work is based on true stories collected via hundreds of interviews conducted throughout one of Texas’ worst foster care regions.

A collaborative effort between Child Advocates-San Antonio (CASA), Theatre for Change, SA2020 and many other partners, the performance is a staged reading a television pilot, written by TLU professor Shannon Ivey (a foster mother herself) and television star Windell Middlebrooks. Texas Lutheran University (TLU) produced Region 8, which will be performed by many familiar faces from the San Antonio theater arts scene.

The show will run twice in April, national child abuse prevention month: Friday, April 4 at Texas Lutheran University (7 p.m. and tickets are free; first come, first served) and Sunday, April 6 at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre (7 p.m. and tickets cost between $10 and $25, which you can buy online here through Ticketmaster).

The Rivard Report paid a visit to CASA last weekend for an exclusive glimpse into the project.

I Am Region 8 rehearsal at CASA. Photo by Elisabeth Reise

Region 8 rehearsal at CASA. Photo by Elisabeth Reise.

Research for the Region 8 began well over a year ago, as Ivey, CASA recruitment and training manager Elisabeth Reise and others began collecting data and statistics. “We thought that creating a narrative from fact would be a much more powerful tool to evoke change within the foster region than just a pamphlet,” Ivey said, “It evokes a visceral reaction to a child’s real situation.”

And the goal of Region 8?

“We’re really hoping that people take ownership of these kids. There are almost 6,000 kids in the Bexar County system, and our city of 2.4 million people should be able to handle this problem ,” Ivey said. “That’s our goal, to get more volunteers and more foster families out of this whole event.”

Reise hopes to communicate that while the reality of child abuse and neglect in our community is severe, it’s not insurmountable. “The problems are really complex, yes, but the solutions oftentimes are really simple if we get the community involved,” she said, “and the research and the statistics back that up. When responsible adults become involved in the lives of these children, it changes their future.”

Ivey agreed: “After hundreds of interviews within this system, I know for certain that if one kid has one person advocating for them, it truly makes the difference between life and death. It’s that high of a stake.”

The actors in this show come from theaters across town, including the Overtime Theater, the Playhouse San Antonio and the Playhouse Conservatory, the Renaissance Guild, Teatro Farolito and others.It’s literally the entire arts community in San Antonio,” said Ivey, including visual artists and musicians, “coming together to rally around these kids and say, ‘Ok, that’s it. We’re going to talk about this.’”

To the performers, Region 8 feels different than other shows. “A lot of times in regular theater productions I think we get bogged down into character work. This is bigger than that,” said actor and Theatre for Change vice president Shelly Chance, “because all the stories are true. I’m hoping people take that away, and that the discussion doesn’t end with this show.”

Andrew Thornton, who works at the Overtime Theatre and the Playhouse San Antonio, agreed. “Usually when you’re getting together to read a script, there’s something theatrical about it and you’re applying your acting skills,” he said, “but this is a completely different case. It’s an announcement of reality. That’s what makes Region 8 so difficult and cringey every time we read it.”

Likewise, Ellie Leeper, an employee of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and actor, said, “What’s so different about this work,” she said, “and collaborating on this project is that it is real. It doesn’t leave you.”

José Rubén De León, cofounder of Teatro Farolito, performs in Region 8 and also worked on the production’s soundscape. At first finding difficulty in bringing light and creativity to such a dark script, he eventually created a number of tender bilingual lullabies for the project after forcing himself to “to think of what would it be like to be an abused child in an environment that you have no control over. That has been a very enlightening process for me, and a very humbling experience.”

Cast of Region 8. Photo courtesy of Anne Gerber.

Cast of Region 8. Photo courtesy of Anne Gerber.

Region 8 is the most serious project yet that 14-year-old Ashlyn Roth, a member of The Playhouse Conservatory, has been a part of yet (“I haven’t really done a lot of anything this heavy before,” she said, “so it’s certainly really new to me”), but Danielle King of the Renaissance Guild noted underlying themes of love and healing.

“I love the fact that in all of this script some of the last words you hear are of love being poured and flowed back into the children that have been impacted by horrible tragedy. Love’s got to fix it,” she said, “and healing has to take place.”

The project aims for more than just increased awareness; Reise hopes to inspire viewers to become a part of the solution. “There are so many people with huge hearts who have asked, ‘What can I possibly do about it?’ We want to be able to say, ‘This. Let me give you a list of all of the different ways you can help change this and change the cycle.’”

From becoming a foster parent or court-appointed special advocate to something as simple as befriending a foster family, Region 8 intends to demystify the spectrum of ways one can improve the lives of our city’s most vulnerable citizens: neglected and abused children.

Cast of Region 8. Photo courtesy of Anne Gerber.

Cast of Region 8. Photo courtesy of Anne Gerber.

Molly Cox, chief engagement officer of SA2020 and an actor in Region 8, spoke to the relevance of this production to the city at large: “SA2020 celebrates our city’s successes – the increases in high school graduation rates and the drop in teen pregnancies are great examples – but we also use data to help identify challenges our city faces. Our SA2020 vision calls for a steep reduction in the number of children who experience abuse or neglect. We are happy to partner with Theatre for Change –and their many partners—in their powerful effort to tell this story and help improve the odds for San Antonio’s abused and neglected children. We are stronger when we work together.”

Related Stories:

Child Abuse: A Silent Epidemic in Bexar County

An Advocate for Mentally Ill Children Brings Her Cause to San Antonio

The Essence of Patient Safety and Bedside Advocacy

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