By Mary Ellen Slone
For an unfathomable number of sexually abused children across America, there may only be minimal options for help.
Here in the Bluegrass however, “the climate for recognition and hope for healing is different,” very different. Twenty years ago, a ‘blue ribbon team’ championed by Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Larson developed a multidisciplinary team approach for the investigation, intervention, prosecution, and treatment of child sexual abuse cases.
Resultantly, a not-for-profit Board of Directors was formed in 1994, charged with the analysis and evaluation of the critical need to protect our children from this ‘unspeakable’ abuse. Soon thereafter, the Lexington-based Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) opened its doors with one staff member, a commitment from a diverse and caring Board, and the entire community.
Our community has embraced this concept and has inspirationally nurtured its growth and outreach. The Children’s Advocacy Center of the Bluegrass now coordinates the investigation and treatment of the most serious cases of child abuse in the surrounding 17 Central Kentucky counties. CAC of the Bluegrass provides all the services a child and family needs when sexual abuse has been disclosed. Forensic interviewing, family advocacy, forensic medical exams, and healing therapy are all available at no cost to a child’s family.
Understanding child abuse
Child abuse is far more than bruises or broken bones. While physical abuse is shocking due to the scars it leaves, not all child abuse is obvious. Ignoring children’s needs, putting them in unsupervised, dangerous situations, or making a child feel worthless or stupid are also manifestations of child abuse. Regardless of the type of abuse, the result is serious emotional harm.
Dispelling some common myths about child abuse
Myth: It’s only abuse if it’s violent.
Fact: Physical abuse is just one type of child abuse. Neglect and sexual abuse can by just as damaging; and since there are often no visible signs of trauma, others may be less likely to intervene.
Myth: Child sexual abuse doesn’t happen in my neighborhood.
Fact: Child abuse crosses all racial, economic, and cultural lines. Studies suggest that as many as one in seven children will be sexually abused before they reach their 18th birthday. Abuse does not discriminate.
Myth: Most child abusers are strangers.
Fact: More than 90% of the time child abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts.
Myth: Abused children are permanently scarred from the abuse.
Fact: Children are incredibly resilient. With support, many children do overcome the trauma of child abuse. Trauma-focused therapy services ensure children can begin to heal from the abuse and learn to trust again.
The Children’s Advocacy Center of the Bluegrass at a glance
Seeing an average of 600 children each year (yes, 600), the Children’s Advocacy Center of the Bluegrass provides four core services—Forensic Interviews, Medical Examinations, Advocacy Support, and Therapy.
The Center employs specially trained interviewers who are experts in talking to children in crisis. These developmentally sensitive interviews follow a legally defensible, best practice protocol.
Each year, more than 560 children receive forensic interviews and 480 caregivers receive advocacy support and crisis counseling.
Exams are conducted to diagnose and treat injury, collect forensic evidence, and provide reassurance to every child and family. All exams take place in a bright, child-friendly medical clinic by a board certified Child Abuse Pediatrician.
Each year, 135 children receive essential medical examinations and 120 caregivers receive education about their child’s physical and mental health treatment needs.
Family advocates provide a broad array of support services designed to help families understand the dynamics of abuse and navigate the complicated legal process.
Crisis counseling, support groups, and case management services are designed to meet every family’s unique needs.
Trauma-focused therapy services promote emotional healing after abuse. Individual, group, and family therapy increases coping skills and reduces the occurrence of re-traumatization.
Each year, more than 80 child victims of sexual abuse receive individual, group, or family counseling.
The Children’s Advocacy Center Saves Money
The CAC model saves court, child protection, and investigative dollars averaging $1,000 per child abuse case.
The Children’s Advocacy Center Holds Offenders Accountable
The multidisciplinary team model results in a 94% conviction rate for CAC cases that proceed to trial.
The Children’s Advocacy Center is Effective
Caregivers report an overwhelmingly satisfaction with the help their child receives. 97% of parent would tell others to seek help at the CAC.
Abuse and Neglect—The earlier child abuse is recognized, the better the chance of recovery and appropriate treatment for the child. Child abuse is not always obvious; by learning some of the most common warnings of signs of child abuse and neglect you can more easily recognize the problem, and get the child the help he/she needs.
Physical abuse—Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts or cuts. Child is always ‘on alert’, waiting for something bad to happen. Child shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home. Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days.
Neglect—Clothing is ill-fitted, filthy, or inappropriate for the weather. Hygiene is consistently bad (unbathed, matted and unwashed hair, noticeable body odor). Untreated illnesses and physical injuries. Frequently unsupervised or left alone to play in unsafe situations and environments. Is often late or missing from school.
Sexual abuse—Noticeable behavioral changes – becoming withdrawn or clingy, changes in eating habits, personality, or school performance. Displays sophisticated or unusual knowledge or interest in sexual behavior. Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without an obvious reason. Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others, or participate in physical activities.
Emotional abuse—Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong. Exhibits extremes in behaviors (extremely compliant or extremely demanding; extremely passive or extremely aggressive). Doesn’t seem to be ‘attached’ to the parent or the caregiver. Acts either inappropriately parental (taking care of other children to gain favor)”, or infantile (rocking, thumb-sucking, throwing tantrums).
Bringing new and better ideas to the table
Our Lexington Children’s Advocacy Center team, under the direction of Executive Director Andrew Oliver, has carefully and finely tuned the process for children who need protection against abuse. At one time, there were as many as 15 different ‘contacts’ an abused child were required to meet with before he or she could be helped. From the point where the child divulged to a teacher that he or she was being abused at home—the child had to be interviewed by the teacher and principal, then examined by the school nurse before being referred to the police. A police officer would be sent to interview the child; a nurse, a doctor, and a social worker would examine the child; a child protection investigator would interview the child; a lawyer might be needed to speak with the child, etc.
That process has been dramatically refined by the Children’s Advocacy Center. Now, a child speaks with three people—all under one roof. An abused child speaks to a forensic interviewer specially trained to help children in crisis, in a non-threatening, child-friendly environment. The child’s statement is observed by a detective and Children’s Protective Services worker and recorded for evidence. The child can be examined by a board certified child abuse pediatrician in a medical clinic that is bright, cheerful, and tailored just for kids. If appropriate the child can receive healing therapy to help them recover from the trauma they have experienced. Throughout the process, their family is being supported by a family advocate.
The Children’s Advocacy Center of the Bluegrass is truly a healing place for physically and sexually abused children and their families. The Center operates on a non-profit basis, relying for 20 years on the generosity and kindness of the community to fund this amazing “citadel of compassion” for children.
For additional information and/or to donate to this 501C3 local charity, please go online to Children’s Advocacy Center of the Bluegrass atkykids.org.