The role of the child advocacy center

Monday, May 14, 2018 - Updated: 12:18 pm

By Robert Hugh Farley

Child sexual abuse is an important matter for everyone to be aware of. You are an important part of stopping the cycle of this type of abuse and all types of child abuse. When you volunteer in an organization that works to protect children and you partake in safe environment procedures and activities, you are a part of the solution!

Here at the VIRTUS Programs, we consistently receive questions asking what happens once a report is made to child protective services. When a child discloses to you about their abuse, or when you are suspicious and report the information to child protective services, your concern doesn’t just end there. There is much involved in any type of child abuse investigation.

Read on to learn about child advocacy centers and the important role they play in an effort to reduce the stress children experience in having to tell and relive the trauma that has happened to them.

Children are understandably reluctant and often embarrassed to disclose information about child abuse. When law enforcement or child protective services suspect a child has been abused, the child is now brought to a child advocacy center, a safe, child-focused environment, by a non-abusive caretaker or other “safe” adult.

At the CAC, the child is asked to tell his or her story just once to a professional, forensically trained interviewer who knows the right questions to ask in a non-leading way that does not retraumatize the child.

This is a significant difference from how child abuse investigations occurred in the past. As recent as the 1970s, responses to child abuse allegations in the United States were not the most effective because they weren’t jointly coordinated between all of the disciplines that potentially could become involved in a credible child abuse investigation.

This disjointed response improved in the early 1980s with the creation of the multi-disciplinary team approach, which has been widely adopted as a best practice in responding to child abuse allegations throughout the world. Due to the complex nature of these type of investigations, many states today now require this type of joint collaboration between disciplines.

The core members of the multi-disciplinary child abuse team are:

• Law enforcement.

• Child protective services.

• The medical community, such as physicians, sexual assault nurse examiners or SANE (sexual assault nurse examiner) nurses.

• The prosecutor.

• Mental health professionals.

• The child advocacy center.

Even though the investigations were improving, each of the disciplines continued to interview the children separately and often in their individual, stressful office settings. This would put children in the unfortunate position of being forced to “tell their story” over and over again in harsh, adult settings, such as police departments.

Additionally, the multiple interviewers, although compassionate, often did not take into consideration the psychological consequences of child abuse, such as fear, anxiety, depression, anger and hostility that would sometimes manifest as a result of repeating the story for multiple interviewers in separate interviews.

Child abuse investigations conducted by the MDTs became even more improved when investigators, who were previously challenged when interviewing suspected child abuse victims, constructed private, child-friendly and child-decorated interview rooms with child-sized tables and chairs.

The National Children’s Advocacy Center has been credited with having further transformed the United States’ response to child sexual abuse allegations with the creation of the first child advocacy center. In 1985, the NCAC demonstrated the need for a single child forensic interview specialist conducting the interview for the MDT, which eliminates separate interviews and interviewers — and most importantly, reduces the burden on the child.

Typically, a CAC is located geographically separate from police stations, child protective service offices and courthouses. While all CACs share the same philosophy, they vary in size and capabilities. Some may be located in a hospital, while others are situated in a small house. While offering child forensic interviewers, many CACs also offer therapy, medical exams, courtroom preparation, victim advocacy services, case management and other resources.

The child forensic interview is essentially described as a structured, friendly and neutral discussion about an event that is in question (such as abuse, or violence witnessed against another person) that provides the child a reasonable, non-leading opportunity to present his or her information. Often, the forensic interview will corroborate or refute allegations or suspicions of child abuse. Interviews are observed remotely by representatives of the investigative agencies.

If the child discloses that she or he has been abused, the interviewer will then conduct an anatomical inventory, which is a helpful technique in the investigation process of identifying a child’s precise name for each of his/her own body parts.

Depending on the CAC, the investigative members of the MDT can observe the forensic interview through a one-way mirror, watching streaming live video or they can later review a digital video recording of the interview. Only those people directly involved in the investigation are allowed to actually observe the interview.

There are a number of forensic interviewing protocols and steps that are utilized at the CACs to improve the accuracy of the information elicited. Additionally, forensic interviewers routinely participate in peer review by the members of the MDT in order to continually develop their skills. The interviewers are also required to regularly attend professionally recognized training.

Following a disclosure of abuse, the entire MDT team, which includes law enforcement, child protective services, a prosecutor, a physician or SANE nurse, victim advocates and other professionals, can make accurate decisions together about how best to support the child with legal, child protection and mental health interventions.

Following the forensic interview, a non-abusive caretaker will be given the opportunity to speak with the members of the investigation team. If the child has disclosed abuse, the MDT will only tell the non-abusive caretaker what was learned in general terms because the role of the CAC is just one component in the comprehensive investigative process.

Witnesses need to be interviewed, medical exams may be conducted and physical evidence may need to be located along with an interview of the offender. Child protective services, if involved, must also assess safety issues such as the danger of the child being abused again or other children being abused. Lastly, the prosecutor will conduct a review of the entire investigation process and make a decision as to whether the offender will be prosecuted.

If a child in your care has recently been through a forensic interview, or is going to experience one soon, here are some tips on how to communicate with them before and after the experience.

Keep in mind that it will be very important to be supportive and acknowledge the child’s courage, regardless of what they disclosed or what was determined in the interview. Do not be discouraged if the child does not want to talk to you, as it can be an exhausting experience — but a necessary one. If an individual is abusing your child, this type of interview is one of the initial, official steps to begin to stop the abuser from continuing to abuse.

Child abuse investigations have come a long way and are carefully conducted with the best interests of the child in mind. CACs are a major part of this process, and are advocating for the children in your care. Please also consider advocating for the CACs. Most are nonprofit organizations that aren’t government funded or subsidized. You can volunteer your time, assist with fundraisers and inform others.

This article is the copyrighted property of National Catholic Services, LLC (National Catholic), all rights reserved, and is republished here with National Catholic’s permission. It originally appeared on the VIRTUS Online website as continuing training for adults at www.virtus.org. For information about VIRTUS Online or other VIRTUS products and services, call 888-847-8870 or e-mail helpdesk@virtus.org.

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