April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Child abuse takes place in every part of the population and takes many forms. Children suffer from neglect, endure physical and sexual abuse, are exploited by pornographers and sex traffickers, and become collateral victims of drug abuse and other types of maltreatment every single day in America. Fortunately, Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) across the nation are providing critical services to these young victims and helping to safeguard their legal rights, especially during this national COVID-19 pandemic.
Protecting children is essential to the mission of the Office of Justice Programs. OJP’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has proudly supported CACs for decades. It funds training and technical assistance through four Regional CACs—all of which support state chapters and local centers. OJJDP also funds the National Children’s Alliance, the national membership and accrediting organization for CACs, to support the development and enhancement of local CACs.
CACs are responsible for coordinating the investigation, prosecution and treatment of child abuse. They rely on multidisciplinary teams of professionals from child protective and victim advocacy services, law enforcement and prosecution, and the medical and mental health fields.
The nation’s first CAC, now called the National Children’s Advocacy Center (NCAC), was created in 1985. Located in Huntsville, Alabama, it came about through the vision of Robert E. “Bud” Cramer, Jr., a district attorney who would go on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1991 to 2008. As district attorney, Cramer observed that the social service and criminal justice systems often failed to coordinate their responses to child maltreatment cases, leaving victims in want of basic services and forced to repeat stressful and emotionally painful interactions with system officials. After enduring the trauma of abuse, a child would be asked to recount that horrific experience repeatedly in separate interviews with investigators and human service professionals.
Cramer knew that children’s care had to be addressed on every level, so with the help of key individuals, he came up with the idea of a multidisciplinary team. With this model, children could be helped in a much more effective manner, and in a way they could trust. It eased their distress and provided a less segmented and frightening experience.
Thirty-five years later, the NCAC remains focused on the core mission: fighting for children’s rights with compassion and concern. It serves more than 10,000 child abuse victims every year.
It has trained more than 158,697 child abuse professionals from all 50 states and 179 countries. NCAC has also served as a model for the more than 1,000 CACs now operating in the United States and in more than 34 countries throughout the world, with more in development.
Reflecting on this approach, Cramer said, “The evolution and adoption of the CAC model is beyond anything we ever imagined, and I am always astounded to see how this model is protecting children throughout the world while also holding those who harm children accountable for their actions.”
Today the CACs are facing a new challenge: balancing two public health issues. “On the one hand, we need to be part of the national effort to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, we must respond to reports of child abuse, an enduring public health concern,” said Chris Newlin, NCAC Executive Director.
Newlin went on to say that CACs are providing limited in-person services at this point in the emergency, only doing forensic interviews and exams in situations where children are currently experiencing abuse. However, he noted that CACs have dramatically increased their use of technology, with many multidisciplinary teams conducting their meetings via Zoom or other platforms, and aggressively implementing tele-mental health services for children and families. The National Children's Alliance has also developed a resource page for information to help CACs respond to the needs of children and families through the coronavirus crisis.
Now and always, Children’s Advocacy Centers are proving that there is a way to prevent violence, victimization and abuse from leaving an indelible mark on our children. Through the compassion and unflinching dedication of the men and women who serve in these centers, children across the nation are getting the care, treatment and justice that they deserve.