TASK FORCE’S CHILDREN’S ADVOCACY CENTER RECOMMENDATIONS MUST BE A PRIORITY
HARRISBURG, PA – The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association today lauded the finding by the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection to expand access of child victims of sexual assault to Children’s Advocacy Centers. Expanding access to CAC services, which offer a comprehensive approach in assisting child sexual abuse victims, is a PDAA priority with the goal of improving the treatment, prosecution and prevention of child abuse in the commonwealth.
“The Task Force on Child Protection is to be commended for recognizing the value and success these centers have in their communities,” PDAA President and Adams County District Attorney Shawn Wagner said. “Our association looks forward to working with Governor Corbett and the new General Assembly to make the task force’s recommendation to provide seed money to expand access to CACs a reality.”
In Pennsylvania, currently only 20 out of 67 counties are able to offer CAC services to child victims of sexual abuse and other crimes. Their lack of geographic reach and dedicated funding sources currently make it impossible for their services to reach all of Pennsylvania’s children and families. With no dedicated funding source, budgetary decisions are made on an annual basis and depend upon grant applications and local fundraising efforts.
Last August, the PDAA recommended to Penn State University and the NCAA that support to expand CACs should be considered the priority when funding decisions are made regarding the $60 million NCAA endowment created by a consent decree to assist victims of child abuse. No decisions have been announced regarding the endowment, but disappointingly, the NCAA has indicated that most of the funding will be distributed nationally.
“As a district attorney fortunate enough to have access to a child advocacy center’s services, I know first hand that the CAC model works,” Wagner said. “Today’s task force recommendation further validates that CACs are the best way to deliver services to victims and successfully prosecute child abuse and deserve to be properly supported.”
CACs are county-based, utilizing multi-disciplinary teams providing proven, comprehensive services in the areas of child abuse prevention, investigation and healing for victims and their families. Research demonstrates that child abuse investigations handled through a CAC have a shorter length of time to disposition, better prosecution outcomes, higher rates of caregiver and child satisfaction, more referrals to mental health services and better access to medical care. Anecdotally, use of this model results in more guilty plea agreements sparing victims the further trauma of testifying at trial.
In addition to the task force’s CAC recommendations, Wagner said PDAA would also examine the many additional recommendations made in the report.
“The PDAA always welcomes opportunities to examine suggested improvements to the criminal justice system, and we look forward to working with the governor and the General Assembly on these recommendations to help make Pennsylvania safer for all children,” Wagner said.
Children’s Advocacy Centers
There is no better way of ensuring that child sexual assault victims receive everything they need to help prosecute their abusers and to help them begin to heal than by enabling these victims to have access to a Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC). CACs are comprised of frontline professionals on the ground with child victims. They are specialists in child abuse prevention and treatment. They are criminal justice professionals who have received the specialized training it takes to recognize, investigate and successfully prosecute child abuse. The ultimate success of any CAC lies in the fact that it is the only entity to bring together all of these partner agencies and experts in a collaborative effort, and all of the partners understand they are of equal importance to the success of the program.
What do CACs do?
To appreciate the work and the results of CACs is to understand precisely what they do. Indeed, what they do is unique, individualized, comprehensive and, ultimately, critical.
• Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) provide a “one-stop shop” for child sexual abuse victims and their families to get all of the services they need relating to the abuse. At the CAC, the child is interviewed about the abuse and a medical examination can be facilitated. In addition, the family can meet with victim/witness representatives and learn about mental health and other important services. CACs are either located at a healthcare facility or are standalone facilities.
• The interview of the child is conducted in a child-friendly setting by a professional child forensic interviewer trained to elicit all information in an unbiased and sensitive manner. The interviewer has no stake in the outcome, just the desire to learn the truth. The interviews are often recorded allowing for peer review of the interview and, ultimately, a more complete picture for the jury. CAC interviews are far more persuasive in court and less subject to defense challenges claiming suggestion or fabrication.
• Without a CAC, the child is subject to multiple interviews by police officers, detectives, child protective service workers, and medical personnel. The police interview typically occurs in the intimidating environment of the police station. The multiple interviews and varying expertise of those conducting the interviews results in many more court challenges to the child’s statement.
• CACs utilize a multidisciplinary team consisting of prosecutors, police, child protective service workers, medical personnel, mental health counselors, and other professionals. This coordination ensures that all necessary information is elicited from the child at one time. Collaboration between the team members results in better decisions regarding the conduct of the investigation and its outcome. Without a CAC, the risk of inconsistent or contradictory statements by the child and/or inconsistent or contradictory actions by investigators and protective service workers is great.
Beyond this crucial work of protecting children from further victimization and furthering justice, CACs play a critical role in preventing and detecting child abuse. Consider the following:
• CACs develop and disseminate best practices that provide CACs, schools and other child-focused organizations with more effective processes to detect and stop abuse.
• CACs routinely go out into their communities to educate the public about child abuse. CACs educate teachers, school administrators, medical providers, civic groups, and school children.
• CACs host trainings for those who work in the child abuse field such as police, social workers, attorneys, mental health and victim/witness counselors.
Funding for CACs now and in the future
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania CACs lack a dedicated source of funding, and instead depend on government contracts, grants, and their own fund-raising efforts to operate. For example, the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance-serving the fifth largest city in the U.S.-relies on private sources for more than one-half of its budget. As local, state, and federal budgets continue to tighten and non-profit and private sector dollars get spread more broadly, the need for dedicated CAC funding intensifies.
Rather than expand what works so well, our CACs must fight every year to maintain that which they have. In such an environment, expanding their reach, as well increasing the number of CACs throughout Pennsylvania, is unrealistic. The consequences, however, are real. It means that, in the majority of Pennsylvania counties, innocent children who have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted will not have access to a CAC.
Investing in CACs will ensure that victims and their families continue to receive vital services while helping to ensure that abusers stop hurting kids and are brought to justice.
The scarcity of CACs places an added burden on victims and their families as they work through the already excruciating process of dealing with child abuse. This scarcity also negatively impacts the ability to prevent and detect child abuse. There are only 20 CACs for all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.
Put simply, funding is the primary roadblock to the establishment of additional CACs.
CACs most effectively provide the critical services needed by child sexual abuse victims and their families-services that ensure the well-being of the child while helping to stop the abuser from hurting more kids. Through outreach and education the CACs are also the most effective provider to communities of the knowledge needed to prevent child sexual abuse.