To understand what a Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) is, it is helpful to understand what children face without one. Without a CAC, the child may have to tell the worst story of his or her life repeatedly to doctors, police, lawyers, therapists, investigators, judges and others. They may have to talk about that traumatic experience in a police station where they think they might be in trouble, at school where they are worried about privacy or in their home where the abuse took place. And they may be asked questions by a well-meaning teacher or other adult that could hurt the case against the abuser.
If one were to diagram what that looked like, it would be circuitous and chaotic, with multiple pathways involving the legal system, Child Protective Services, health care practitioners, mental health treatment providers and the child and family moving along those pathways. At a CAC, the diagram would have the child in the center and all the other professionals around the child, focusing inward on the child.
When police or child protective services believe a child is being abused, the child is brought to the CAC — a safe, child-focused environment — by a caregiver or other “safe” adult. There, the child tells their story once to a trained interviewer who knows the right questions to ask in a way that does not re-traumatize the child. Then, a team that includes medical professionals, law enforcement, mental health, prosecution, child protective services, victim advocacy, and other professionals make decisions together about how to help the child based on the interview.
CACs offer referrals to therapy and medical exams, plus courtroom preparation, victim advocacy, case management and other services via interagency linkage agreements. This is called the multidisciplinary team response and is a core part of the work of CACs.
In 2016, the Children’s Advocacy Center of Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties served more than 220 children and more than 150 non-offending caretakers in our region. Referrals come only from law enforcement and DHHS.
Upon referral, the CAC begins the process of a joint coordinated response to the allegation by scheduling a child-friendly, trauma-informed forensic interview at our CAC. Our Family Services Coordinator reaches out to the child’s non-offending caregiver to schedule the interview, ask how they are doing and inquire if there are further supports we can provide between the time of the call and the actual interview. We explain the role and process of the CAC, as many families are understandably overwhelmed at this point of contact and need as much information as they can get to put their mind at ease. Lastly we provide our agency’s 24-hour support line number (1-800-871-7741) in case they need to reach out to talk.
Once at the CAC, the non-offending caregiver meets with the team of assigned investigative members to process prior to the interview and then meet with them again after the interview to discuss next steps. While the child is being interviewed, the Family Services Coordinator meets with the non-offending caregiver to discuss how they are doing personally, assess the needs of the child and determine how we can help facilitate services the family needs after their visit. We follow up with the family in seven days and 30 days to see how they are doing, if there are any other services needed and whether there are other ways we can support them.
Every case that comes to the CAC is reviewed by the multi-disciplinary team involved with the case to identify further steps to support the family, improve the joint criminal investigation, strengthen the accountability for the perpetrators of these crimes, cross train team members and assess the overall team response.
It takes a village to create a culture that comes together to no longer accept the occurrence of child abuse, to end child abuse and to wrap our hearts, expertise and resources around the youngest victims of violence.
They seek safety, validation, healing and hope. We are here to be a catalyst toward that end.
For more information about your CAC, go to www.cac-afo.org .
Kat Perry is CAC coordinator for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services.