Story by Elizabeth Simpson Earley

Child Advocacy Center marks major milestone

In the waiting room, a soft, pastel mural depicts children playing. An interior hallway showcases patient artwork – colorful rainbows, butterflies, and fire trucks. Individual rooms have low tables and chairs, easels, markers, and crayons. There are a variety of activities, including cards, board games, and bubbles.

To the uninitiated, these items may look like simple toys and child-friendly décor. But local and military law enforcement, the legal community, and child protective services agencies understand that everything here is intentional, part of an evidenced-based process to help determine what has occurred when allegations of child abuse or neglect have been made.

In 2018, the CHKD Child Advocacy Center’s twentieth year, professionals referred more than 1,500 children from our region to the program. Those children used the easels and crayons to draw pictures of things they don’t have words for. They played games to help them express thoughts and feelings, and blew bubbles to deepen their breathing and relax.

“In many cases of child abuse, the only witness is the victim,” says Erinn Portnoy, LCSW, executive director of the program. “We provide a neutral, child-focused setting and forensic interviewers who are trained to communicate with children in a developmentally appropriate way.” In these protocol-based interviews, children are asked non-leading questions to help determine whether abuse has occurred. The sessions are recorded, and conducted behind one-way mirrors so investigators can witness them. The goal is to prevent children from having to relive details of their abuse by telling their story over and over.

“Protecting victims from being further traumatized by the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases was the impetus behind our program and others like it across the country,” says Sarah Bishop, chair of CHKD’s child abuse advisory board. “Our region owes a debt of gratitude to Solon Paul and his late wife, Johon, whose initial gift established the program several years before it came under the CHKD umbrella – and who have continued to support it ever since.”

In addition to forensic interviews, the program provides case management, family advocacy, medical care, and specialized mental health treatment. Many of the services are free, and no child is ever turned away.

Twenty years ago, CHKD was one of the first in the nation to develop this multi-agency, collaborative, child-centered focus of care. Today, it is one of more than 850 Children’s Advocacy Centers across the county that operates with the same model. “Our method has become the standard because it works,” says Dr. Michelle Clayton, medical director of the Child Advocacy Center at CHKD. “Children recover and go on to lead healthy lives, and the family cycle of abuse can be stopped before it reaches another generation.”