Helping abused kids speak up
Sunday March 19, 2017 12:01 AM
By Holly Herman
Some children burst through the door with wide eyes and bright smiles.
Others look sad and distant.
Whatever the case, when children arrive at Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center of Montgomery County, teddy bears, snacks and books await them in the lobby.
The atmosphere is soothing, like a pediatrician’s office.
The children are there to tell staff members their experiences with abuse. The accounts could be admissible in court, if necessary.
“A child who has been traumatized can heal,” said Abbie R. Newman, executive director of the nonprofit in East Norriton Township, a 10-minute drive from the county courthouse. “It can be traumatic for a child to go to court and talk about abuse. The only way to stop child abuse is for society to keep talking about it.”
Newman said the location for Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center was selected because it’s central for all residents of the county.
Since child abuse has come to the forefront following the investigation and subsequent conviction of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, reports of child abuse have escalated.
The number of child abuse complaints in Pennsylvania rose from 24,378 in 2011 to 40,590 in 2015, a 66.5 percent increase.
“Child abuse is not new,” Newman said. “It is a severely underreported crime, with as few as 1 in 10 cases being reported.”
But Newman said that since the widespread coverage on the Sandusky case and the change in Pennsylvania’s mandatory reporting laws in 2015, there are more child abuse cases being reported statewide. The advocacy center, meanwhile, experienced a 64 percent increase in the number of children it served, from 364 in 2011 to 598 in 2015. That number dipped to 522 in 2016.
Newman estimated that 15 percent to 19 percent of children the center serves come from municipalities in the Pottstown area.
Newman said research indicates that when child abuse investigations are handled through a child advocacy center, there is a shorter time for disposition of cases, resulting in more plea agreements. Additionally, caregiver and child satisfaction rates are higher, and there are more appropriate referrals to mental health services.
County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said the advocacy center provides a much more comfortable environment for children than a police station.
“It’s child friendly,” Steele said. “In the old days, the child had to be interviewed many times. If a kid reported it at school, the kid was interviewed by a school counselor, the police, a prosecutor and social service worker. With Mission Kids, there is one interview by a person trained in forensics. The child doesn’t have to be traumatized again and again.”
The children are referred to the agency by county Children and Youth Services and the district attorney’s office.
When a family arrives, the adults talk with a family advocate, while the children are interviewed in private rooms.
Newman said the interviewer is neutral, asking nonleading questions to elicit detailed information.
The room where the younger children are interviewed has crayons and coloring books. The room for adolescents has soft, comfortable chairs.
The interview is recorded and viewed by law enforcement officials, caseworkers and prosecutors.
Maggie Sweeney, a forensic interviewer, said the interviewer follows a national protocol.
“When the child provides details, it will facilitate the investigation,” she said.
The spotlight on prosecuting offenders for child abuse gained momentum as a result of the Sandusky case. Sandusky is serving a 30-to-60-year sentence in state prison after he was convicted of molesting 10 boys he met through The Second Mile, a nonprofit he founded.
Legislation enacted in 2014 requires people in professional or supervisory roles to report child abuse by phone to ChildLine at 800-932-0313 and follow that with a written report within 48 hours.