“Whether it’s justice, healing, or both, we want to focus on what the child needs.” This is the basis of Kristina Taylor-Porter’s vision for Centre County’s first Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), set to open early in 2014. Not only motivated by the challenge to bring resources and services to child-abuse or neglect victims, Taylor-Porter, who is the center’s first executive director, also desires to make a difference for children whose cases may have yet to be noticed or acted upon, just because of where they live.
Located in Bellefonte, the CAC is situated at Mount Nittany Health’s Medical Park Lane, and will serve as a hub for victims, their families, and all parties involved in investigating and treating cases of child abuse and neglect. Nationwide, Children’s Advocacy Centers employ a child-centered approach to support children who have been abused, and help them recover from such a physical and emotional tragedy. A CAC is a safe, child- and family-friendly space where kids come on a nonemergent basis for evaluation and treatment of abuse. The centers provide one place where all parties involved can convene while focusing on meeting the needs of the child.
Taylor-Porter explains that prior to the CAC model, child-abuse victims could be interviewed anywhere from seven to 21 different times, therefore increasing the likelihood that information is forgotten or told in varying ways, potentially because the child may forget or leave something out.
The CAC will utilize a team model, through what is often referred to as a multidisciplinary investigative team. This team is made up of child-protection services, law-enforcement officials, the district attorney’s office, victim advocates, and medical and mental-health personnel. Typically, members of the team would conduct separate interviews with children who are suspected to have been the victims of abuse or neglect. Instead, the CAC provides a child-focused forensic interview via closed-circuit equipment. Taylor-Porter explains that this model, in addition to streamlining the communication process between the child and team members, also will help in minimizing the amount of trauma children of abuse go through in having to retell their experienceover and over, and therefore relive the tragedy.
“The more times a child has to talk about their experience, the more times they have to relive the abuse or neglect then, too,” says Taylor-Porter. “If they have to keep telling it over and over again, there’s a possibility they may forget or recant the information.”
In addition to services surrounding the interview process, the CAC will serve as a place for victim advocates to meet with children and their families, as well. A victim advocate is a professional trained to support victims of crime. They offer victims information, emotional support, and help in finding resources and filling out paperwork. Taylor-Porter says that this resource will be helpful to families and victims in guiding them through the process, and also may help in ensuring that cases make it all the way through to prosecution.
“Families can become overwhelmed by the investigation and prosecution process,” she explains. “A victim advocate would help to alleviate some of the stress and information overload that is involved.”
Not only is emotional healing critical in this process, but Taylor-Porter explains the importance of also having medical services to offer victims at the time of their interviews. By partnering with Mount Nittany Physician Group Pediatrics - Bellefonte, the CAC will offer three trained physicians on site to conduct medical exams to ensure the child’s physical health, and also to document any signs of abuse and treat any sexually transmitted diseases that may have occurred as a result of the abuse. Additionally, the medical team can offer referrals for behavioral-health services.
“Our center is adjoined to the physicians group,” says Taylor-Porter. “It’s a great space in that the physicians can just come right over and perform the exam, so the child and their family don’t have to make a special trip.”
There are many advantages to partnering with the physicians group, and Taylor-Porter explains that more CACs are associated with hospitals, not only because of the medical component, but also because of the additional support and resources such a partnership provides.
She says, “Mount NittanyHealth will be able to provide a number of resources that a stand-alone nonprofit could not do — communications support, fundraising opportunities, and beyond.”
Taylor-Porter explains that these resources will go a long way in helping to raise awareness of the CAC, not only in Centre County, but also in outlying regions.
“If you look at a map of CACs in Pennsylvania,” explains Taylor-Porter, “the central part of the state is underserved in terms of access to a Children’s Advocacy Center. Through our partnership with Mount NittanyHealth, we’ll be able to reach out to those counties who would have otherwise not used a CAC due to lack of resources or access.”
Taylor-Porter’s desire to serve the needs of the region ultimately circles back to being able to provide better services for more children. By investigating more cases in a team capacity, she feels the CAC can successfully help bring more cases to light, therefore helping more children.
“I like to say you can eliminate it [child abuse],” she says, “but the premise of child abuse is secrecy — it’s built off of secrecy. I think the more we talk about child abuse, we educate children about their bodies and boundaries, and create open lines of communication with our children, the more difficult it will be for an offender to get away with it, and more reports will be made.”
For more information about the Children’s Advocacy Center, visit mountnittany.org/childrens-advocacy-center.
Lori Wilson is a freelance writer and works in marketing for the Penn State Smeal College of Business.