As they celebrates their first year of serving the community, staff members of the Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) of Douglas County hope to continue strengthening families and combating the pervasive issue of child domestic abuse.
Onsite operation is run solely by duo Bev Turner, director, and Sidney Lawyer, family advocate and forensic interviewer. Since February 2021, the nonprofit organization has offered free services to families and individuals in need.
The CAC works with the umbrella idea of family advocacy for families with children under the age of 18 or developmentally delayed adults. In addition to family advocacy, there are specific facets underneath, including court advocacy, medical and mental health referrals, and education.
“We want the community to know we are here for them and our services are completely child-centered,” Turner said.
Cases are typically referred to the CAC by way of calls from schools, hospitals, law enforcement and other community entities and members who are concerned about signs of domestic child abuse. Additionally, if a family feels their child is showing concerning behavior, like signs of violence or inappropriate behavior toward other kids, they can also seek resources from the CAC.
Families can choose whether or not to maintain an ongoing relationship with the CAC after an initial visit, but they’ll always be given informational packets to keep.
“What we do is case-by-case; there’s no textbook way to handle everything,” Lawyer said. “We build that trust with them from the start, and we’re a small community, so we’re able to just ask them what they need.”
As April was National Child Abuse Prevention Month, the CAC has been reflecting on education and prevention.
In the past year, at least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse or neglect in the U.S., according to the CDC. Socioeconomic status (SES) can be a predictor of child abuse or neglect as the rates in which children in families with low SES are five times higher.
When it comes to child sexual abuse, more than 90% of the time, the perpetrator is someone the child knows, loves and trusts.
“It’s important for people to realize the prevalence of abuse within the family. We’re not talking about stranger danger here,” Turner said.
In its first year of operation, between April 2021 and March 2022, the CAC helped 94 people in Douglas County.
The COVID-19 pandemic shutdown resulted in children who experience domestic abuse to be stuck at home without a source of escape or resources. As students become used to in-person classes again, Turner hopes to double the number of individuals the CAC saw in its first year, which comes with children feeling comfortable to speak up at school about what is happening at home.
“It’s kind of a catch-22 because seeing more kids means more kids are getting hurt, but in reality they are already getting hurt,” Turner said. “During the pandemic, kids were at home with unsafe people and they had no one to tell. Then when they got back to school, they had become so used to not telling.”
To make the system of child abuse investigation and response more centered on the child’s needs, the CAC collaborates with its multidisciplinary team (MDT) in making decisions that will be best for the child.
The MDT consists of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, the Baldwin City, Lawrence and Eudora police departments, the Kansas Department for Children and Families, Bert Nash Community Health Center, the University of Kansas, the Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center, the district attorney’s office, Children’s Mercy Kansas City and Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
Working with MDT partners is a “compassionate and community-based” approach that will help “prevent, identify, investigate, prosecute and treat child maltreatment,” according to the CAC’s mission statement.
“Our partners do a great job at their roles – getting us all on the same page, keeping information confidential and asking the tough questions,” Turner said. “Ultimately we want to make the best decision for the child, so sometimes we have to challenge each other or compromise, and everyone is really open to that, which is nice.”
The CAC’s main role is to provide additional advocacy, acting as liaisons between the family and MDT services that they need. Advocates aim to reduce fear and anxiety by making families, and especially children, feel comfortable to open up.
Both Turner and Lawyer are trained as forensic interviewers, so they are able to conduct those interviews onsite, but they are excited to soon be hiring a part-time therapist.
A recent three-year grant from the National Children’s Alliance (NCA), which is the governing body over the 950-plus advocacy centers across the nation, will fund the CAC’s first licensed therapist.
The CAC is now looking to solidify national accreditation through the NCA, which will strengthen the organization’s credibility and legitimacy. Another goal is to expand upon the CAC’s translation resources already in place, which will help with language barriers as she has noticed an increased need for more Spanish-language resources, Turner said.
The CAC is located inside the Douglas County Human Services Building at 2518 Ridge Court, Suite 200, and is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. by appointment or by phone call at 785-592-3160.
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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.