Imagine reliving the worst day of your life over and over again. When we as adults are victimized, we fall back on our coping methods developed over a lifetime. Some mechanisms are healthier than others. We may report it to the authorities, seek restitution, or take it outside and handle it “man-to-man”. However, many adult’s coping mechanisms may not be as strongly ingrained and may result in unhealthier options, like the all-too-common racing mind at bedtime. During that zone where we are trying to shut down our thoughts, the mind begins wondering what could have been, what should have been, what shouldn’t have been, or what could have been done differently. We become tough on ourselves, based on the assumption that we are fully functional and productive members of society. Now, envision being mistreated and abused as a child; an innocent child who was violated by an adult, or even worse, a trusted adult. How will children react to being violated? Regretfully, there is no definitive response. They may regress, act out, appear stoic and unresponsive, or offer no indicators at all.
The reality is that children are being victimized every day. When addressing adult victims of violence, they are asked to explain an emotionally and physically traumatic experience to people they don’t know. Most victims find it challenging to express the personal suffering they have experienced. How can we help the most innocent of prey, without the fear of their constant re-victimization? Consider explaining in polite company your last consensual personal encounter. Now change that consensual encounter to a forcible one and discuss that with a room of strangers. Is it reasonable to expect a child to have that resilience?
According to the National Children’s Alliance, there are almost 800 child advocacy centers nationwide. Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center outside of Philadelphia, in Montgomery County, PA, conducted 600 forensic interviews on child victims of sexual or physical abuse and witnesses to abuse in 2015 alone. With a mission of “Achieving healing and justice for children,” they provide a safe haven for law enforcement, child protective services and prosecution to team up and interview children in a healthy, legally sound manner to help children triumph over trauma. A forensic interviewer, who conducts these dialogs, is a trained professional who can speak with children who have suffered, or witnessed abuse or crime. This interviewer is the liaison between the child and the investigative team. They are flexible and possess an ability to interact with children to bring to light responses that can aid law enforcement in understanding and eliciting the truth.
Prior to the interview, the child should be encouraged by their loved one that it is okay to talk about what happened at the interview. There is a lot of trust the child has to place in the interviewer, so it is important to tell the child that they will be speaking with someone whose job it is to talk with kids who have been through similar experiences. Instructions like “It’s safe to tell the interviewer what you told me” lay the foundation for a trusting relationship.
On the day of the interview, the child and accompanying guardians are greeted by a family friendly environment that places the victim at ease. Once it is time for the interview to begin, only the child and interviewer will enter the comfortable interview room, designed to be neutral and non-threatening. There are few distractions, but the child is alerted to the subtle microphones and cameras capturing the upcoming interview. As the discussion begins, the child is spoken to in an age appropriate, open ended manner to encourage honest discussion. The victim will tell their story one time, to one person, in their own words.
Behind the scenes, in a separate conference room, are the members of a multidisciplinary team watching the interview via closed-circuit television. What makes this process extraordinary, are the participants watching the interview behind closed doors. Representatives at interviews include professionals from law enforcement, the Office of Children and Youth, and the District Attorney’s office. The interview is recorded and allows for team members to roundtable ideas to best support the needs of the victim while preparing the investigation. At no time does the child encounter the team of professionals watching and discussing the interview.
Following the interview, the child is supported and acknowledged for their courage. They are reunited with their caregiver and they meet with a family advocate who provides referrals for specialized mental health therapists medical doctors. This advocate will help guide the family through the legal process, as well as with victim compensation, and further act as a liaison between police, prosecution and the other partners as necessary. They are available during the duration of the investigation and legal process to the family to help the child move onto healing faster.
The goal of the child advocacy center is first and foremost the safety and well-being of the child victim. Programs such as this provide child victims an avenue where they can feel safe and supported, begin the process of healing, and promote justice in a fair and functional environment that is paramount to the victim.
Beth J Sanborn is a School Resource Officer with Lower Gwynedd Township Police (PA) and an adjunct instructor with Holy Family University (PA) and can be reached at [email protected]
Darren K Stocker is an Assistant Professor with Cape Cod Community College (MA) and can be reached at [email protected]