April is Child Abuse Awareness Month and no institution in Kaufman County is as dedicated to raising awareness and helping children affected by abuse than the Kaufman County Children’s Advocacy Center.
The Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) was established in 2008 by Shannon Gardner who remains the executive director today. Each day the center strives to carry out its mission: providing justice and healing for children and families impacted by abuse.
Perhaps the center’s most important job is helping children get through the pitfalls and difficulties they regularly encounter in the United States criminal justice system. In order to do that, the center’s child forensic interviewer conducts an interview with victims one time, asking all of the relevant questions that need to be asked, in order to minimize the amount of time a child must spend talking about the abuse and eliminate the need for multiple interviews which can drag out the process and add to the stress children and their families already face.
“For a child who has been sexually or physically abused, nothing is more terrifying than the thought of telling someone what has happened to them,” Kaufman County CAC forensic interviewer Morgan Morrison said. “Because most children know their abuser, they understand that their disclosure will forever alter their life. The criminal justice system, originally designed for adult defendants not child victims, makes it even more difficult for children to talk about their abuse. Previously, children were forced to undergo repeated questioning about the most traumatic event in their lives. They were interviewed and examined numerous times by police, medical providers and social workers. Despite the best efforts of these professionals, they were re-traumatizing the very children they were trying to help.
“As an interviewer it is important that we ask the right type of questions that are developmentally appropriate in order to elicit the most accurate information possible. The interview is often the start of the healing process for many children who are sexually abused. It’s a time for children to tell their story in their own words, a story that will probably be the worst one they have to tell throughout their lifetime, and it is my time to listen to them and be there for them. Law enforcement officers and Child Protective Services observe the forensic interviews through closed-circuit television, and together with the CAC make decisions on what is best for the child.”
In addition to helping children and their families navigate the criminal justice system, the CAC also provides resources to victims that help cope with the mental trauma that accompanies abuse. CAC therapists are trained in TF:CBT, a trauma informed practice to help children and their non-offending caregivers through the psychological trauma of sexual abuse.
“Therapy at the CAC not only addresses the psychological trauma to the child, but to family members as well, so that they can support their child through the process of recovery,” CAC therapist and clinical supervisor Katheryn Chaney said. “By the child having a family member understand the toll the abuse has taken on their life, the child can focus on healing in a supportive environment. Sexual abuse can impact how children feel about themselves, people in their lives, and the world as a whole. By providing children accurate information about sexual abuse, as well as non-judgmental support and coping skills, children can reshape the way they think and in a sense, feel safe again.”
While CAC and other similar agencies aid children throughout the year, Morrison, Chaney and the other CAC workers are thankful for Child Abuse Awareness Month, because it provides them a specific time to help raise awareness for the alarming statistics that accompany child abuse. Unlike many social issues and abuse, child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and levels of education. Last year, there were over 170,000 child abuse investigations in Texas alone, and those were only involving cases that were reported. Every eight minutes, a child is sexually abused in the United States. About 25 percent of children from both sexes are sexually abused before their 18th birthday.
“Everyone hears about child abuse statistics and hears about child abuse in the news, but few people have heard the rest of the story, the story that tells how trauma has a lifelong impact on a child’s life,” Morrison said. “Research has shown significant links between adverse childhood experiences and risky behavior, psychological issues, serious illness and the leading cause of death. This research highlights the importance of raising awareness in order for families and communities to understand the harrowing impact of child abuse. Education is also vital in child abuse prevention. If we can teach others how to recognize and report child abuse, as well as what to do if a child has been abused, fewer children will be victimized and more children can live the healthy lives they deserve. The Month of April allows us to shine light on the reality of child abuse and how everyday members of our community can help make a difference.”