Penn State Child Abuse Conference Focuses on Need for Advocacy Centers
Experts on child abuse from across Pennsylvania joined forces at Penn State Wednesday.
They jammed into the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel for the second annual Conference on Child Maltreatment.
The conference carried a complicated name, "Protecting Pennsylvania's Children by Building Multidisciplinary Investigative Teams/Child Advocacy Centers," but the meaning could not be simpler -- keeping kids safe.
The event is sponsored by the Network on Child Protection at Penn State. The network was organized in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Margaret Gray, director of policy and administration for the network says, "The purpose is to really focus on the long haul in the prevention and treatment of child abuse."
Hundreds of people attended the conference, representing the various agencies that get involved in child abuse cases.
Keynote speaker Teresa Huizar told the crowd it's important that people realize that child abuse is real. "First of all it exists. Children don't make it up," she says. Huizar is the executive director of the National Children's Alliance (NCA) the accrediting body for 750 child advocacy centers across the country.
Child advocacy centers (CACs) are part of a growing trend to make reporting cases of child abuse less traumatic for victims. According to the NCA such centers served more than 260,000 child victims of abuse in 2010, including 8,600 in Pennsylvania.
Multidisciplinary Investigative Teams (MDITs) include various professionals; police, social services, legal and medical. Working together, CACs and MDITs minimize the stress on child abuse victims. The goal is to have a trained interviewer speak with a child victim just one time.
Lucy Johnston-Walsh is director of the Children's Advocacy Clinic at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law. She says in a CAC, "a victim of abuse would only have to be subjected to one interview so they wouldn't be interviewed by the prosecutors, and by the police and by the child welfare agency. It's one interview to just eliminate all the repetition."
Beverly D. Mackereth, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, calls it a one stop shop. "It is a safe place for a child to feel comfortable in sharing their story, and hopefully, it's by an interviewer who is well-trained, who doesn't ask leading questions, and it's an interview that can be preserved for everybody as they move forward in the investigation," she says.
Mackereth points out, "It's not always about prosecution. That's an important key, but it's also about helping that child and family to recover and to move forward."
Those interviews are videotaped in an effort to simplify the entire process. "They're doing it once. So, when the defense, in discovery, sees that video of this child ... and they can see that this child is telling the truth and is going to look really good on the witness stand," says Mark Zimmer, chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
There are currently 22 CACs in Pennsylvania. Child advocates say many more are needed. Zimmer says MDITs are also in short supply. He's asking residents to contact their state representatives and ask for more funding.
Abbie Newman is among those who credit Sandusky with helping raise awareness. Newman is the executive director of the Montgomery County Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center.
"I hate to put it this way," she says, "To the CAC movement, Jerry Sandusky is our friend. He brought such great awareness to this movement, to the work that is being done -- to the help that it brings to children, to prosecutors, to children and youth services, to children's advocates. For Pennsylvania it's been a rallying cry and I think it's wonderful."
Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler admits that child sex abuse is a difficult subject. He says, "This stuff really happens. And that acknowledgement comes very hard. Sandusky and the crisis in the Catholic church, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, are two examples of things that have driven this home."
Heckler is also a strong advocate for CACs. "You wouldn't let somebody clean your teeth without years of training and certification," he says. "Here we're talking about kids at moments of crisis and you're talking about the criminal justice system needing the truth and the CAC brings that together."
Huizar says there is tremendous ignorance about child victimization. However, more people are getting the word about predators, "even a year ago people never heard of grooming behavior," she says.
She says child abuse can last a lifetime, describing a woman in her 60s who still can't sleep without leaving a light on because of her night terrors.
Huizar told the audience that CAC's really work. "What kids remember is that, 'I felt safe and people believed in me,'" she says before adding, "Our big challenge is to ensure that all kids have access to these services. Kids can get better and will get better based on what we do."