Why Child Advocacy Centers Work

If Centre County, Pennsylvania had a child advocacy center in 1998, Jerry Sandusky's crimes would have been brought to light a decade earlier, sparing years of agony for his victims. So said the Chair of Pennsylvania's Task Force on Child Protection last month upon the release of its report, which studied the state's child protection system and made several policy change recommendations.

Pennsylvania has been ground zero in the national discussion around a community's response to child abuse. When the Sandusky news broke in November 2011, we were all stunned to learn that a monster was able to deceive and hurt so many.

"How could this happen?"

"Why wasn't he arrested after the first report?"

"Why didn't anyone follow up?"

As complicated as it may appear, the reality is quite simple. Back in 1998, Centre County's investigation of child abuse was typical of many across the country. Professional disciplines with responsibility for some aspect of child protection all worked in individual silos. There was little information sharing across disciplines. Everyone just performed the duties they were responsible for and moved on. Is it any wonder, then, that a master manipulator and publicly revered football coach could evade detection and continue to perpetrate his crimes?

The failure of past practices in child abuse investigations stem from the silo approach. If we are to effectively tackle child abuse, like any criminal justice issue, collaboration across disciplines is a critical component of the solution.

Child Advocacy Centers (CACs) are a relatively new, but increasingly successful approach to providing a "one-stop shop" for child sexual abuse victims and their families. At a CAC, the child victim's well-being is paramount. The child is interviewed about the abuse and a medical examination can be facilitated. The family can meet with victim/witness representatives and learn about mental health and other important services.

CACs create a child-friendly setting, which puts victims at ease and allows professionals to do their work. A child forensic interviewer is trained to elicit all information in an unbiased and sensitive manner. Prosecutors, police, child protective service workers, medical personnel, mental health counselors, and others all coordinate to ensure that all the necessary information is elicited from the child at one time. That kind of team approach results in better decisions regarding the conduct of the investigation and its outcome.

Early in my career, I routinely saw cases where young children were forced to recount the horrors they experienced at the hands of a predators over and over and over again. Our system traumatized these victims, often as much as the abuse itself. Many kids endured a dozen interviews before the "professionals" could figure out what to do with the case. And sadly some kids did not have the strength to proceed after facing the rigors of the system. The failures of that approach to child protection led me, and my colleagues, to open a child advocacy center in our community.

In 2009, Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center opened its doors. On a recent afternoon, a nine-year old boy came there after he had found the courage to tell someone about something bad a male relative did to him. The boy walked into Mission Kids' welcoming waiting room. He sat with a specially trained forensic interviewer who spoke to him in a comfortable room where he could sit in a chair just his size and talk about what had happened. The interview was recorded so he would not be forced to repeat the harrowing events again. Professionals from other disciplines watched via closed circuit TV so they could work together to conduct the best, most effective, thorough investigation. Once the interview was over, the boy's mom was given information about mental health care that would help her son heal.

When the pair left the building, the boy was walking taller. He grabbed his mom's hand and said, with a grin "Today it starts". His mom asked, "What starts?" "My new life," he replied with a spring in his step she had not seen in months.

Unburdening himself of this terrible secret and knowing he was believed, this boy was able to take the first steps of his new life, steps toward healing.

He did not need to know about all the work the professionals continued to do after he left. There was an investigation to complete, a potential arrest to be made and many more official actions to undertake. What he knew was that he had his fresh start.

"In the context of Sandusky, the strongest argument for the use of a multidisciplinary approach to these investigations is simply that it creates inescapable accountability for all players in the child-protective system, requiring them to perform their duties in a timely and thorough way," said the Chair of Pennsylvania's Task Force on Child Protection.

In the context of a child's life, the best argument for a child advocacy center is simply that it clears the path for a child victim to leave his victimization behind and have the hope to start again.

This post is part of a series co-produced by The Huffington Post and Points of Light to honor Loreal Paris' Women of Worth initiative. Women of Worth honors incredible women who are making a beautiful difference through their dedication to philanthropy and their passion for improving the world. The 10 women being honored this year were selected from thousands of nominations. Each of the honorees received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oreal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning April 2013, please visit womenofworth.com.