Partner Profile: Putting Child Abuse Victims First in Montgomery County
April is a significant month for crime victims across Pennsylvania and across our country, with the recognition of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, National Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Crime Victims’ Rights Week (April 8-15). Each of these annual observances are dedicated to raising awareness about various forms of assault, educating communities about prevention, and celebrating the progress we’ve achieved in fighting these scourges. One such form of progress is the successful partnership between Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center and the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, which provides a more comprehensive process to serve victims of child abuse in our community.
Prior to the establishment of Mission Kids, child abuse victims in Montgomery County were required to participate in multiple interviews – each time reliving the horrors of their abuse. This process caused additional, unnecessary trauma and sent children the message that they weren’t believed, or got their story wrong. These multiple accounts also could make cases more difficult to prosecute, sometimes making the child’s story look inconsistent because they were being interviewed by professionals whose interpretation of each interview varied.
After a particularly challenging and lengthy prosecution of a child sexual abuse case, a teenage victim and his mother met with the Montgomery County District Attorney. During this visit, the boy explained that even though he was brutally sexually assaulted by several men for years, the investigation and prosecution was probably even harder for him to endure. After this meeting, the Montgomery County DA’s Office was dedicated to ensuring that the system created to protect children wasn’t re-traumatizing them.
- Reducing the repetition of victim interviews
- Ensuring that qualified personnel conduct each interview
- Guaranteeing effective use of all available community resources to support the victim
- Keeping track of the whereabouts and condition of the victim throughout the process
- Providing ongoing education to the community on best practices, prevention, and intervention strategies
The MDT, which includes representatives of the DA’s Office, all 49 local Police Departments, and the Office of Children and Youth, is now responsible for responding to all child abuse allegations in Montgomery County. This collaborative investigation process allows all parties to work together to provide protection, healing and justice for victims of child abuse.
From the beginning at Mission Kids, each child and his/her family members are assigned a ‘Victim Advocate’ to work together with law enforcement and prosecutors on behalf of the child and family. The role of the Victim Advocate is guide the child and their family through the system. The services they can provide range from immediate crisis intervention, to information on the dynamics of child abuse. They can answer parents’ question, address their fears, and inform them of their rights. They walk with each child through the criminal justice system, helping to navigate the system. Equally important, they assist survivors with the physical, emotional and social impacts of child abuse empowering them with tools and resources to assist in the healing process.
While Montgomery County remains committed to creating accountability for offenders of child abuse, this process focuses on the child’s well-being above all else. A responsive criminal justice system, which provides consistent and high-quality victim services, helps ensure a better outcome for our children and their families. The partnership between Mission Kids and the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office has not only delivered consistency to the care of child abuse victims, but it has significantly reduced trauma for victims.
Historically, many experts would have described the process of advocating for victims within the criminal justice system as holding their hand as they walk through hell (Weisz, 1999; cited in Koss, 2006). Today, I hope that victims of crime and criminal justice professionals would describe victim services as a well-trained, pro-active and critical ally that is able to maintain a primary focus on the safety and well-being of the victim.
For more information about Mission Kids: www.missionkidscac.org
By Leslie G. Slingsby, L.S.W., Executive Director, Mission Kids, Child Advocacy Center of Montgomery County firstname.lastname@example.org