Child advocacy center helps kids

Published 6:00 am Saturday, March 7, 2020

On average, each year there are more than 5,000 cases of child abuse in Alabama, according to the National Children’s Advocacy Center. Ninety percent of children will never tell anyone about the abuse they suffer.

According to the Alabama Network of Child Advocacy Centers, a child is abused or neglected every 47 seconds in the U.S. and one in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.

In 1985, the National Children’s Advocacy Center was established in Huntsville, the first of its kind in the United States. The NCAC revolutionized the response to child sexual abuse and since its inception, has been the model for more than 950 child advocacy centers across the country, including the Tri-County Children’s Advocacy Center. Tri-County covers Chambers, Randolph and Tallapoosa counties and was established in 1999.

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The idea behind child advocacy centers is to have a designated place where children who are alleged to have been abused or neglected or witnessed violent crime can speak to one specially trained person.

Jacqueline Burgess, who has served as the executive director of the Tri-County CAC for two and a half years, said “before CAC’s existed children were interviewed probably by nine or 10 different people because everybody wants to know what happened. We didn’t have one designated place to do that.”

Sheriff Sid Lockhart remembered being a deputy and having to go on calls and interview children in potentially abusive situations.

“When I was a deputy, a child would be questioned by a deputy, a doctor would question them, a nurse would question them and when they go to court, the district attorney would question them and DHR would question them. The poor child had to go through so many interviews, and we as deputies are not qualified to interview a child.”

Every complaint is followed up on, however, not all complaints will get an interview. This is usually assessed by law enforcement. Burgess had strong praise for the Chambers County law enforcement.

“I cannot sing enough praises about the law enforcement here,” she said. “They are excellent to work with.”

Another function of CAC is they lead child abuse investigations by facilitating monthly meetings of DHR, law enforcement and the district attorney’s office to keep everyone up to date on the progress of each case.

Since 1999, CAC has added a counseling component, so all of the children that have been found to be abused or neglected are offered free trauma counseling.

“We do a little over 300 interviews a year and less than 5 percent were getting medical exams because they had to travel to Montgomery, Birmingham or Atlanta and transportation is an issue for some of our clients, and they just would not get them,” Burgess said.

In July 2018, CAC started their medical program, hiring a nurse practitioner who completed forensic nursing courses on pediatric child abuse exams. With the number of exams approaching 100, Burgess said CAC has trimmed that 5 percent to one third.

Prior to renting their space in Valley, CAC would have to go to emergency rooms and urgent cares to ask for space to conduct exams. Now, the office is equipped with an exam room. Burgess also said of all the medical exams conducted between the three counties, Chambers makes up 70 percent of the exams.

“We do that locally now and with the addition of this office, this is the first office that has an exam room in it,” Burgess said. “I hope to be able to do this in the other counties.”

All of that work takes funding. Seventy percent of CAC’s budget comes from the Victims of Crime Act allowing them to apply for grants. This also what allows them to provide these services free of charge to crime victims. CAC also relies on matching donations from private entities.

“I have found as director that the biggest hurdle I have come up against is people don’t know who we are,” Burgess said. “They don’t know how to help.”

Anyone interested in donating to CAC can call their office at (256) 825-0094 or email burgessj@tri-co-cac.org.

About 20 to 30 of CAC cases will get referred for prosecution but may not actually see trial for three to six years. While awaiting trial, the child will undergo trauma counseling anywhere from six to nine months depending on the level of trauma as well as monthly check-ins afterward. Burgess says the district attorney’s office will notify her about six weeks before a case goes to trial. CAC will then do court prep with the client where they take them to the courthouse and prepare the child. Court is the only other time a child has to retell their story. 

“I personally think that’s the hardest part of my job because a lot of these kids have moved on, and they’ve healed, and I’m having to make them go back and live through it again,” Burgess said.

If anyone needs to make a report of suspected child abuse, contact a local law enforcement agency or Chambers County DHR at 334-864-4000.