Children affected by abuse and neglect can find refuge in Tucson at the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center, where specialists work to ensure victims feel comforted, respected and secure in the wake of traumatic experiences.
Established in 1996 through a partnership between the Tucson Police Department, Child Protective Services, Pima County Attorney and the Sheriff’s Department, the center has made it possible for children who have been mistreated or witnessed a crime to have a safe and centralized place to get the attention they need.
The organizations created a “one-stop shop” for children in traumatic situations, according to Linda Clay, the center’s prevention specialist. If an abused child is taken in by the police there are multiple legal steps that need to be taken to determine what will happen to the child.
At the advocacy center, located at 2329 East Ajo Way, the child’s needs remain the priority throughout the entire process, Clay says.
The National Children’s Alliance claims that in 2012, children’s advocacy centers nationally served more than 286,000 children, and more than 294,000 in 2013. These statistics only cover the cases dealt with specifically by the advocacy centers. Law enforcement and have their own separate reports and statistics.
Child abuse and neglect has increased across the nation within the last two years: witnesses to child abuse filed 80,916 reports that required a response or investigation in Arizona alone from October 2011 to 2013 according to “Childhelp: Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse.”
Not only are children being abused, but many are dying as a result. In 2012, approximately 1,640 children died from abuse and neglect in the United States, according to “Childhelp: Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse.” The organization also reports that three or more children die in their homes as a result of abuse every day. Meanwhile, the organization also states that a child abuse report is made every 10 seconds, some reports involving more than one child.
Clay says caretakers and parents can get caught up in everyday stresses and can take it out on their children.
If a bystander witnesses someone abusing a child, they should call 911. “You can anonymously say that you have observed something happening and you give them the address and then the police will do a well check,” Clay says.
The police will check to see if the child is on school or if they appear to need medicine care. If they see evidence of maltreatment, the child will be brought to the center and be evaluated by different staff members.
The investigation begins with a forensic interview once the child arrives at the center. The interviewer tries to get as much information as possible about the abuse. Every child’s situation is unique. Some can explain exactly what happened and are willing to talk at length. Others are unsure of how to describe what they went through.
Jan Logan, the center’s forensic interviewer, says her discussions with her subjects are “child-friendly, child-sensitive and…geared toward children,” but still meant to glean as much as possible.
“The questions are created to help solicit information that they may not be able to give otherwise, or know how to give, because children don’t know what is important to disclose about the abuse,” Clay says.
The interviewing process can be traumatic for some, so Logan says she tries to keep the process as concise as she can. At a police station, a child could sit throughout the night and undergo five to 10 interviews with no place to relax or play, Logan says. At the advocacy center, however, the children has comfortable couches, can play with toys and only has to undergo one comprehensive interview about the circumstances.
“We only interview them once, because after the fifth or sixth time the kid is ready to go home and leaves out details,” Clay says. “This way you get the most information in the timeliest fashion and everyone who needs to can share it. It is less dramatic for the kid.”
Forensic interviewers’ methods differ across each state and county, as do the rules and regulations at each advocacy center. In Maricopa County, the interviewers are allowed to use “props,” such as a doll, to help communicate more openly with the child, but props are not permitted in Pima County.
Instead, Logan typically draws a body on a piece of paper and asks questions, using the drawing to help the child pinpoint areas of abuse and injury. The forensic interviewing process is videotaped and can be used in court if needed.
The next step involves a medical exam with the center’s full-time nurse. The nurse can take pictures of any evidence of physical abuse, which can also be used in court, Clay says. Once that process is complete, the child is transitioned to the care of an advocate to help find the resources needed for recovery.
The advocate stays with the child and family throughout the process at the center and follows up after the child has been released.
Advocates are support not only for the child, but for the family as well.
“Child abuse doesn’t only affect the child, it affects the entire family,” says Francisca Serrano, a bilingual advocate who often assists up to four or five children in a single night at the center. “So I get them in touch with the resources they need in order to get through this tough time.”
After the interview, medical screening and other steps are completed, the advocate seeks out the best place for the child to be once they leave the center. Serrano works with family members not implicated in the abuse and sets them up with Child Protective Services to see what the next step is.
“CPS will take the kids and try to put them in with a non-offending family member because you would like to keep them within the family structure,” Clay says. “You just want to be sure you give the kids back to someone who did not participate in the abuse.”
With abuse can come acute stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleeping and eating pattern changes, anger and depression. A crisis counselor works to respond to these issues, and Serrano helps set up interviews between children and counselors.
Crisis counselor Natalia Owens lends professional support and “provide(s) assessment between the forensic interview and ongoing services if necessary,” she says.
Owens works for Las Familias, an organization that focuses on sexually-abused children, but is also affiliated with the advocacy center.
Owens can arrange up to eight sessions with the clients. If they need further counseling she can refer the child, or their family members, elsewhere.
“When a child is the victim, basically the whole family becomes a victim of the crime,” Owens says.
Owens adds that although some children have a higher risk of suffering from mental health issues in the wake of abuse, her job is to assess the situation immediately after the crisis has occurred and determine if the child has a history of mental health issues before the incident, indicating that they may be at a higher risk of those issues escalating in the future.
The center also works to actively prevent abuse from occurring in the first place. Clay works with the community, including elementary schools across Tucson, to tell the children that it is OK to say no to someone that they are close to who may be treating them inappropriately, whether that be through physical or sexual abuse.
“If I can get out there and tell kids that they have a right to be safe, I will,” Clay says. “No matter if it is bullying, internet safety, I talk to them about being too good for violence. I tell them, ‘If you are having an issue with another kid we need to work on some communication skills.’ I am out there in the community helping the kids and parents, so they know what they are looking for.”
Clay says that while abuse might be more prevalent in certain areas of Tucson, cases can be found anywhere in the city regardless of families’ income or background.
“Money doesn’t make a difference, education doesn’t make a difference, you just get people who cannot cope with the stresses that are going on,” Clay says. “It ends up filtering down to the defenseless kids in the family.”
Although there is no fullproof way to prevent abuse, Clay emphasizes that community awareness and directly educating parents about abuse and neglect is much more effective than waiting to address the cases after they happen.
“If parents want to find a way to change their behavior there is no reason why they can’t,” Clay says, “because we are certainly here and available.”