The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

April 13, 2014

Funds tapped for child advocacy centers

HARRISBURG — Rooms fashioned to give child abuse victims a non-threatening place to tell their stories now have steady funding, at the suggestion of a task force created in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Gov. Tom Corbett on Monday signed laws that tap funds for the state’s 22 children’s advocacy centers, the places where specially trained staff interview abuse victims on behalf of prosecutors and police.

One measure transfers $400,000 to the centers from a defunct drug-education program. Another provides ongoing money by raising fees for birth certificates from $10 to $20.

The children’s advocacy centers are better environments for victims of child sex crimes to tell their stories, research shows, and contribute toward longer sentences for offenders.

There was no such center in Centre County when allegations came to light about Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach. A task force on child protection created because of the scandal recommended the state find money for more centers; the 22nd opened in State College last fall.

Alison Gray, director of the Pennsylvania Chapter of Children’s Advocacy Centers, said some centers in the state are connected to health care systems or larger organizations. Others operate independently.

“How one center is funded may vary widely from their peers, and change yearly,” Gray said.

Melissa DeBaro, coordinator at the Child Advocacy Center of the Central Susquehanna Valley, said its funds until now have come from a  “patchwork” of grants and donations. The Northumberland County facility is part of Geisinger Health System but depends on donations from the Children’s Miracle Network to offset expenses, she said.

“We can’t bill a victim” of a child sex crime, DeBaro said.

Sue Ascione, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Lawrence County, traveled to the Capitol on Monday to watch Corbett sign the laws. It was worth the drive, she said, because advocates have been fighting for funds for more than a decade.

Last year the state’s advocacy centers served 9,525 children – 6,774 of them under age 12, according to the National Children’s Alliance.

An analysis by the Children’s Alliance two years ago found that half of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties lacked access to a children’s advocacy center. Existing centers have acted as regional facilities for victims in underserved counties. The Northumberland County center, for instance, treats children from nine neighboring counties. The state’s funding plan not only provides steady dollars for the existing centers, but will allow the network to expand into those underserved areas.

DeBaro said families in some cases have traveled more than two hours to get to the nearest advocacy center. It’s not an ideal situation, she said, for a family grappling with a traumatic experience.

Advocacy centers are designed to diffuse trauma. The only person present when a child is asked to describe a crime is a forensic interviewer, said DeBaro. A police officer, prosecutor and child protective services caseworker monitor the interview from behind one-way glass. Sessions are videotaped.

All of this is intended to keep children from repeatedly reliving the trauma of a crime by recounting incidents to investigators. It’s also intended to ensure those who interview victims do so in a way that helps the child describe the crime without the interviewer leading the victim’s account.

To create a nonthreatening atmosphere, staff at an advocacy center may flop onto the floor to crayon with a child or play checkers. Even before a family and victim arrive, an advocate contacts them to explain the process. The advocate greets the family and child at the center and remains with them throughout the process, including during criminal proceedings that follow.

“It’s hard to have a child at ease, when the parent is not at ease,” DeBaro said.

The interview room at the Child Advocacy Center of the Central Susquehanna Valley has no desk – just a small wooden chair with purple upholstery facing a matching love seat. Between them is a drawing board tripod.

One of the first steps of an interview invites the child to sketch everyone in their lives. Young children may be asked to draw a smiling face to represent each family member. Older children just list names. The approach is designed to get the interview started and help the interviewer and observers to keep names straight, DeBaro said.

Ascione said video recordings of interviews complements any testimony that the child may be required to make in court.

“You capture the child in the moment of disclosure,” Ascione said. It’s a powerful tool because by the time a case goes to trial, a victim may have recovered psychologically to the point that jurors are skeptical about the allegations.

Ascione reflected on her career in child welfare before working with the advocacy center in Lawrence County and recalled cases she’s lost because victims didn’t look traumatized enough.

A 2008 U.S. Department of Justice study examined four children’s advocacy centers – including one in Pittsburgh – and compared them to nearby communities without them.

The study found a number of advantages to the centers. Victims are more likely to get access to mental health services, the study found. They’re more than twice as likely to be removed from homes where they’d been abused; and offenders got longer jail terms.

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