Mission Kids Marks 5 years Helping Abuse Victims in Montgomery County
By Dan Clark, The Times Herald
POSTED: 10/18/14, 5:07 PM EDT
East Norriton >> When Mission Kids first opened in 2009, Abbie Newman thought once the organization was fully operational, it would see 250 to 300 children a year regarding sexual abuse.
Five years later, Newman, who is executive director of the nonprofit corporation, said the staff at Mission Kids is on track to interview 500 children victims of abuse.
“We are pretty much double where we thought we were going to be at five years,” Newman said Friday. “With more awareness of child abuse and more headlines in the news, I think those numbers are going to keep going up.
Newman said the rise in the number of victims coming forward does not speak to a rise in child abuse, but a rise in awareness and a willingness to seek help.
“It means that people have more of an awareness that it’s happening,” she said. “That’s terrific because the reports can be made, perpetrators and abusers can be appropriately punished and, most importantly, the child and family members can get appropriate treatment so they can heal.”
Much of the rise in awareness is due to the Mission Kids itself, according to Newman.
“We try to be out in the community,” she said. “We have many community partners, we have a Facebook page, we do press releases, we do mental health education programs and all of that is to help contribute to the awareness.”
Since opening five years ago, Mission Kids has helped provide education on child abuse to the public, moved into a larger building to accommodate its growing staff and helped other counties develop child advocacy care centers.
Newman said only 21 counties in Pennsylvania, including Montgomery County, have child advocacy centers. She said she acted as the mentor for the child advocacy center in Centre County, where the Jerry Sandusky case arose.
Before Mission Kids, victims of abuse in Montgomery County were often brought in to a police station several times and were made to relive the horrors of their abuse over and over again.
“When there was a report of child abuse, the child would have to go to many different individuals, sometimes many times to be interviewed and spoken to about what happened to them,” Newman said.
She explained the child would first have to speak with an officer at the police station, where children don’t often feel comfortable.
“The police who would interview them — regardless of whatever good intentions they had — often would be very intimidating to a child,” Newman said. “Also to try to make sure that their case would be stronger, they would actually do an interrogation or cross-examination technique but what that has the effect of doing is shutting the child down and making them feel like they are somehow at fault.”
The system was reinforcing the child’s fears, Newman said. District Attorney Risa Ferman agreed.
“For too many years in the past, the justice system traumatized children reporting abuse by forcing them to repeatedly recount the horrors of their abuse,” Ferman wrote in an email. “When we opened the doors at Mission Kids five years ago that re-victimization stopped. Now Mission Kids is an integral part of our community response to child abuse with a focus on protecting our most vulnerable victims and helping them find a path to healing. Helping kids heal and find justice ― there’s nothing more important a prosecutor can do.”
Now, Newman said, after a complaint is made, all of the professionals involved in the investigation are called to Mission Kids, where a forensic interviewer speaks to the victim and investigators watch the interview in a nearby room through closed-circuit television.
“By doing it that way, the professionals get what they need for their investigation, but the questions are asked in a neutral, nonleading fashion, age-appropriate, by a trained forensic interviewer whose only job is to speak to these kids and ask them questions,” Newman said.
The interview is often critical for keeping victims out of court, Newman said. If a case goes to trial, the victim will likely have to testify; however, after defense attorneys and defendants see the recorded interview at Mission Kids, they are often left asking for plea deals, she said.
When the interview is done, Mission Kids offers referrals to services the victims’ families or the victim’s may need.
In the future, Newman would like to expand Mission Kids’ mental health education program.
“We would like to have more mental health therapy started at Mission Kids in terms of things like support groups,” she said.
Considering the number of children coming in for forensic interviews, Newman said, the group might also need to look for a larger space.
Looking for a more efficient way to operate, Newman said she would like Mission Kids to work under a co-located model.
“What a co-located model is where you have all of the partner agencies living under the Mission Kids’ roof,” she said. “So that there is a constant exchange of information between the police, the district attorney’s office, social workers, mental health therapists, advocates to help the child, and the family, heal to get through the system. If you can get everybody under one roof, that constant flow of information just increases and that’s what makes the investigation and the healing for the child and the family at its best.”
Newman said Mission Kids has started moving towards that model with a retired county detective working there part-time, along with a retired assistant district attorney who also works part-time.
“We’re looking forward in 2015 to hopefully have somebody from the Office of Children and Youth on site. I would like to make it so we have everybody here all the time,” Newman said.
One of the challenges with a co-located model, according to Newman, is finding a way to not usurp an investigation from an individual police department.
“That’s what makes Montgomery County pretty unique in that we have so many different police departments,” she said.
In Philadelphia, by contrast, there is one police department with one special victims unit, which allows the city’s advocacy center to operate under the co-located model.
“So to put that unit under one-roof, logistically is a little easier,” Newman said.
In its five years of operation, Mission Kids has helped the public understand the problems associated with child abuse, Newman said.
“It is hopefully changing from the last great taboo to the next real piece of information that people are becoming aware of and lessening the stigma that has gone along with child sexual abuse,” she said. “Because that is the only way that children and families can heal and it’s really the only way to prevent child abuse.”