The newly opened Prince William County Child Advocacy Center, or CAC, will bring professionals involved in all aspects of child abuse cases together for a timely, coordinated response to provide child abuse victims with a safe, welcoming place where they can tell their stories.
Collaboration among Child Protective Services, Community Services, law enforcement, the County Attorney’s Office, and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, for an encompassing approach to child abuse cases, will decrease the number of times children will need to be interviewed.
During a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the center, Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chair at-Large Ann Wheeler, thanked Prince William Board of County Supervisors, Woodbridge District Vice-Chair Margaret Angela Franklin for introducing the idea of forming a CAC to the board.
“The Child Advocacy Center was a thing she brought up and because of that, we started the process and we funded looking into the position and here we are two years later. The entire board supported it … because someone wanted to champion it, because someone believed in it. Those are just the kind of things that when we govern, we’re able to do, and I want to thank her for that. This is going to make a difference in Prince William County.”
Professionals at the CAC, which is a part of the Prince William County Department of Social Services, will focus on the child and collaborate to reduce the trauma surrounding cases of child abuse.
“A child victim will receive the support and services needed to address current and future needs,” Franklin said. “The child victim will be surrounded by skilled and a trained team of professionals who will put the child first. The child advocacy center will make it possible to hold more offenders accountable for their actions. I am thrilled to see the opening of the Child Advocacy Center knowing that our most vulnerable residents, our children, will finally have the support that they need here in Prince William County.”
The CAC, which is working toward accreditation by the National Children’s Alliance and is now considered a developing associate center, was formerly housed at a Police Department facility, internally called CAC-Lite. “It wasn’t nearly the space we have now, but it got us going, and it helped us in establishing our procedures so that we were able to become a developing associate member,” Courtney Tierney, the director of the Prince William County Department of Social Services, said of the original CAC-lite.
Child-friendly and Family-Focused Environment
Being a victim or a witness to an event can be traumatic for people and is even more impactful when children are involved.
“This center provides our children and their families a child-friendly and family-focused environment with a safe, objective place for interviews and evaluations,” said Prince William Police Chief Peter Newsham.
“The center will assist the Police Department with two of our priorities. First, finding the truth, the center will create an environment that will provide the best and most accurate information from vulnerable victims,” Newsham said. “Secondly, it will ensure our children are not retraumatized by being involved in the criminal justice process. In other words, this center not only aligns Prince William County with best practices across the nation, but it also ensures that we protect two of our most precious commodities, our families, and our children.”
Trauma-informed Resiliency Focused Response and Care
Prince William County Community Services Executive Director Lisa Madron spoke about trauma-informed resiliency response and care which is built on understanding, recognizing, and responding to trauma. “It focuses on what happened to you, what is strong about you rather than what is wrong about you.”
Children who are exposed to trauma in their lives are significantly more at risk of serious developmental problems but are more likely to exhibit resilience if they get childhood trauma-informed care from professionals in child-serving programs. “The creation of this child advocacy center, this specific action was taken to ease the burden of trauma and minimize traumatization by strengthening resilience in children and their parents. This is done through respectful assessments and interviews that are competently conducted, culturally relevant, and sensitive. This CAC represents a place where both physical safety and psychological safety can be offered and healing, collaboration and hope reinforced,” Madron said.
Multi-disciplinary Team Approach and Collaborative Services
A multi-disciplinary approach allows everyone involved to ensure the child is insulated and protected through the criminal justice process. “We’ve created a plan of action that everyone knows is best to assist the family as a unit and the child individually,” said Prince William County Attorney Michelle Robl. “Each player has worked toward the common goal of utilizing the tools that they have in their toolbox. This has prevented the additional trauma of the child having to speak multiple times and disclose to multiple parties.”
Commonwealth Attorney the Honorable Amy Ashworth said that CACs replace the patchwork that once comprised the procedures for child abuse cases with advocacy for children. “What many … don’t realize is that for there to be a successful prosecution of a case, the Constitution requires witnesses to come to court and testify. So often we are asking children to come into the courtroom, which is intended to be an intimidating space, and sit six feet in front of their abuser who was often a person of power over them, and tell 12 strangers and a judge, things that they are ashamed of. It helps us be their advocates. It helps us get their case through the court system in, hopefully, a successful way.”
Community Education and Prevention
Prince William County Department of Social Services Assistant Director for Protective Services Phyllis Jennings-Holt said she knew the CAC would help through education and prevention. “There are many milestones to meet and goals to achieve along this journey. The cornerstone of community education and prevention will be met by providing training to professionals, community partners, and more importantly parents and caregivers. We look forward to serving the children and families of Prince William County to build a healthy community.”
The CAC saved $1,000 per case in service to children and families during an abuse investigation. Prosecutions increase and perpetrators are more often held accountable when a CAC is in place.
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