Child Advocacy Centers Lessen the Chances of Further Traumatizing Children.

By Lt. Eric Salemi  |   Sep 21, 2020

It was 1996 and I was a young investigator working a child sexual abuse case. Once again, I found myself in a room in a social worker’s office with a Child Protective Services investigator talking with a frightened five-year-old little girl. This time the “conversation” was about what her mom’s ex-boyfriend had done to her. I had no children at the time and was armed with training from an Interview and Interrogations class, Interviewing Victims of Sex Crimes class, and a four-day class on child interviews from a class I attended at a Tennessee conference.

I sat there with a gun, a badge and a tie. The Child Protective Services (CPS) investigator wore an appropriate and professional outfit while the child and her mother both wore shorts and a t-shirt. The room had pictures of the CPS investigator’s family, some books about child psychology and one volume of the state code.

The child was clearly afraid. No matter how tone friendly we thought we were and no matter how gentle we tried to be, sitting on the floor while she stood holding her baby doll, we were not going to get her to relax. Try as we might, it was next to impossible to get her to tell us what her mother said she heard her say two nights ago at bath time without leading her or traumatizing her by making her speak about such things to strangers.

The office was clean but official and intimidating and we looked like we were dressed for a business meeting while our client-child was dressed for the playground, where she would have much preferred to be. Complicating the matter, the mother insisted that she just knew that her child would not speak to us without her; a statement she made in front of the child. So, try as we might, we could not get the child to stay with us without the mother present.

It wasn’t my first child sex abuse case and it wouldn’t be my last. I would eventually get much better at interviewing child victims in a less traumatic way without leading them to any points or details. I would also get better at rapport and earning their trust. There were plenty of cases where we made a case that lead to prosecution, and plenty where we just couldn’t get anywhere. We also had some cases that ended up not being what they were reported to be. Even then, though, we had some forward-thinking CPS workers who would ensure that counseling for the child was arranged, but it was largely left to the parents to follow through.

The process was what it was because no one knew of a better way. Meanwhile, children were being traumatized by not only the offender, but buy a process that had them repeating their story over and over to stranger after stranger and in some cases, depending on the investigator, by well-intentioned but poorly delivered lines of questioning.  

Sadly, we didn’t know that there was a better way. 11 years earlier, Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) had begun their work in Huntsville, Alabama. Centers were created by partnering the various professionals involved with investigating and prosecuting crimes against children and those involved in treatment in order to better protect the child while properly investigating these terrible crimes. These multi-disciplinary task forces, made up of law enforcement, prosecutors, child protective social workers, counselors, and other key functionaries from multiple jurisdictions–and of course CAC staff–meet and discuss cases only to ensure that all services and options are being made available to the child and intelligence concerning offenders is readily shared. The sharing of information is confidential, protected by most state codes, and necessary because we know that crime does not know the boundaries of venue or jurisdiction.

Using the multi-disciplinary approach where the priority is the child, followed by the secondary interests of the justice system, means that in most cases only those persons necessary to treat the child will ever be in contact with him or her. The number of forensic interviews and court appearances are minimized and often close-circuited, and counseling is arranged, followed up on, and funded. 

Again, sadly, word of these facilities and programs had yet to reach us or many other locations in the nation. It would be another 10 years before the region in Virginia where I began my career would see such a center up and running. I’m pleased to say, that there are now 18 such centers in Virginia all working together to serve quite large regions.

Honestly, there was never a case of this nature that I brought to a prosecutor where we placed charges or indicted that did not end in conviction. This is not meant to brag, but rather to show that while we got to where we needed to get legally, there was a much better way to get there. I’ve often wondered if early on, before receiving the training I would get later, I hindered the emotional recovery or negatively affected any of my victim children because of the way we did things then?

These centers typically operate as 501(c) (3) non-profits with minimal revenue assistance from the local jurisdictions they serve. They rely heavily on fund raising and donations. In these days, when child trafficking is finally getting more attention, these facilities will likely find themselves more and more overwhelmed with cases and in dire need of funding and support. Those who work for and with Child Advocacy Centers do so with a passion to save and heal children who have been through the worst of circumstances. If you work in a jurisdiction as a law enforcement official and you do not have access to a CAC, find one that will let you visit. Observe the process and you will see the benefits these centers provide, both in helping children and in preparing stronger independent cases. I’ve never spoken to an investigator who did not feel that their CAC made their job easier or gave them a feeling of really looking out for the child’s wellbeing.

If you already have a CAC in your region working with you, encourage community leaders and others to ensure that the funding these centers need is provided. Our children depend upon it.

Find out more about Child Advocacy Centers and how they work here.