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PA Prosecutors use Team Approach to Address Child Abuse

April 28, 2022

By Kelly Callihan, Esq., PDAA Counsel for Policy and External Relations

District Attorneys in Pennsylvania understand that children are our most vulnerable victims and deserve special support. There are many resources to help child victims in our system, but cases of child abuse need to be reported to get children the help they need.

Mandated reporters are key to identifying and reporting child abuse. Children are too often abused. The abuse can be physical, sexual, or the result of neglect or inadequate care by parents or caregivers. Mandated reporters serve a critical role in protecting our children and helping to hold perpetrators accountable.

The pandemic showed the value of mandated reporters, who were unable to directly interact with children. Schools shut down. Activities were cancelled. Worship services were moved online.

The result was a 22 percent decrease in reported child abuse cases in 2020, according to a report by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. No one believes actual child abuse cases were down during the pandemic shutdown. They just were not reported.

Pennsylvania’s prosecutors interact with children who have been victims of abuse throughout the process of reporting, investigating, and pursuing charges against their perpetrators. Adverse childhood events (ACE), which include traumatic incidents of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, are known to psychologically affect a child’s development, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. Trauma informed treatment in a supportive setting is critical for victims.

Prosecutors across the state have adopted the best practices model for investigation and prevention of child abuse using the Multi-Disciplinary Investigative Team (MDIT) approach. Victim advocates, police, Children & Youth caseworkers, mental health professionals, medical providers and prosecutors work together in the best interest of the child.

Counties have worked to develop full-service Child Advocacy Centers (CAC’s) where certified forensic interviewers conduct initial interviews with children in a comfortable, safe, non-threatening environment. Family members identified as non-perpetrators are welcome at CACs and are encouraged to take part.

This model of investigating abuse allegations alleviated the past practice of kids being subjected to multiple interviews by all the responding agencies that become involved. The team approach allows input from team members to assess the victim and his or her family’s needs; appropriate referrals are made for treatment. The CAC remains a coordinating source for review by the MDIT of the victim’s ongoing progress, needs, support and care. This victim-centered, age-appropriate team approach benefits the child victim and is known to reduce fear and anxiety as kids report their traumatizing experiences.

MDITs and CACs are critical tools in the fight to hold perpetrators of child abuse accountable. Victim safety is paramount. When agencies work together the child is supported and treatment needs are met.

Prosecutors give child victims and their families a voice in the process and work with victim advocates to prepare children for court so they are informed and ready for what to expect. Children are protected in the courtroom.

Their courage and strength throughout the process is both admirable and inspiring.

If you are a victim of child abuse, even if you are now an adult, or you suspect a child is being abused, you are encouraged to report it by calling 911 or contact the Pennsylvania child abuse hotline, commonly referred to as CHILDLINE or your local Child Advocacy Center.  If you need treatment, please seek help by calling Childline at 1-800-932-0313.

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Kelly Callihan, Esq., is a career prosecutor and former district attorney who spent 28 years seeking justice for victims. During her career, Callihan prosecuted countless child abuse cases, felony sexual assaults and violent crimes in both juvenile and adults courts. She also spearheaded the creation of programs and task forces designed to enhance services for victims in the criminal justice system.

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