By Pam Karalunas, Chapter Coordinator, Alaska Children’s Alliance
What is a Child Advocacy Center (CAC)? It is a child-friendly, culturally responsive and neutral environment to begin an investigation. This is used when there are reports of child sexual abuse, serious physical abuse, commercial sexual exploitation of a child or when a child has witnessed a homicide or other traumatic crime.
A Child Advocacy Center brings together the different professionals involved in reports of child abuse. This allows them to share important information and arrive at the best and most accurate outcomes for the case. Professionals involved usually include forensic interviewers, law enforcement, advocates, medical and mental health providers, Office of Children’s Services, prosecution and, where applicable, Tribes. Together they make up the multidisciplinary team of a Child Advocacy Center.
The team members receive specialized training in investigating, responding to and prosecuting cases. They receive training in interviewing children of all ages in a way that is neutral, non-leading and keeps in mind child development and the impact of trauma on a child’s growth and development. The medical providers are trained to provide non-invasive, head-to-toe medical exams that children find reassuring. The mental health providers are trained in evidence-based, trauma-focused services designed to meet the unique needs of each child and their supportive caregivers.
When caregivers and children describe their experience at Child Advocacy Centers they use words such as “calming,” “understanding,” “compassion,” “comfort,” “respect,” “appreciated” and “reassuring.” It is a place to seek the truth of what may or may not be happening in a child’s life. It is a safe place for children and their caregivers to gain information, ideas and an understanding of the impact that adults can have on the life of a child. It is a place to find support and build resiliency. It is a place to be heard. It is a place where child victims and their supportive caregivers can begin healing.
Alaska has five Child Advocacy Centers that have been accredited by the National Children’s Alliance:
- Alaska CARES in Anchorage
- The Children’s Place in Wasilla
- A.F.E. Child Advocacy Center in Juneau
- Kawerak CAC in Nome
- Copper River Basin CAC in Gakona
Other Child Advocacy Centers are:
- Irniamta Ikayurviat in Bethel
- Nitaput in Dillingham
- RCPC Stevie’s Place in Fairbanks
- Haven House Child Advocacy Centers in Homer, Kenai and Seward
- Maniilaq CAC in Kotzebue
Both Barrow and St. Paul Island are developing a CAC response to child abuse. Each Child Advocacy Center is designed to meet the specific needs of their community while focusing on research-supported best practices and improving outcomes for children.
Child Advocacy Centers also serve as a child abuse resource for community members and organizations. Many of them provide or coordinate training and support or lead prevention efforts. Our CACs include stand-alone nonprofits and others under umbrella nonprofit organizations.
In a state that continues to have some of the highest rates of child sexual abuse in the nation, a coordinated, non-duplicative and effective response is critical! Of the 2,026 children seen at Alaska CACs in FY15, 40 percent were 6 years old and younger and 35 percent were boys.
The research supports what CAC staff already intuitively know: that Child Advocacy Centers save money, help child victims heal, increase caregiver satisfaction with the investigation and hold child molesters accountable.
Pam Karalunas is the chapter coordinator of the Alaska Children’s Alliance. The Alaska Children’s Alliance is the nonprofit state chapter of the National Children’s Alliance, whose mission is to promote a culturally appropriate response to child maltreatment throughout Alaska. State chapters support the CACs in their state as well as communities interested in developing a multidisciplinary response to child maltreatment. Projects of the Alaska Children’s Alliance include TeleCAM child abuse medical consultation and peer review, coordination of the Outcome Measurement System and a biennial multidisciplinary conference on child maltreatment. This year’s conference, Growing Safe & Healthy Children, will be held November 14 to 16 at the Hilton Anchorage. The Alliance has worked with Alaska Children’s Trust on several projects, including its conference and the Alaska Safe Children’s Act.