As the number of child sexual abuse cases decline nationally, child advocacy centers play a vital role.
Again and again, research from the University’s Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) breaks through stereotypes and makes news. We think we know—and then we read a headline and find out differently: It’s not strangers who abduct children—it’s usually someone known to the child. For teens online—a friend online is usually a friend offline, too. Whether researchers from CCRC comment on an incident, inform Congress about online predators and youth victimization, or benchmark trends in bullying and sexual abuse—we’ve come to rely on their research and expertise to help us understand and shape the complex culture in which we raise our children. And so when David Finkelhor, director of the CCRC, refers to child advocacy centers as one of the most important justice advocacy innovations of the last 20 years in regards to children—we pay attention.
“The goal of child advocacy centers has been to cushion the impact of the disclosure investigation and justice system involvement in child sexual abuse cases,” Finkelhor says. “They do that by providing children who are victims of sexual abuse and their non-offending caregivers with professionals who are well trained, understand children’s needs, and can provide sensitive responses to them.”
“The centers also help by coordinating activities so that agencies work in concert and the process is more efficient when it comes to children.”
In the last decade, child advocacy centers have taken off both nationally and internationally. Nationally, the first center was established in Alabama in 1985. In New Hampshire, the first center was established in Rockingham County in 2000 with centers being established in every county soon after.
Now, in 2011, according to Chris Newlin, executive director of the National Children’s Advocacy Center based in Alabama, there are 900 child advocacy centers nationwide—550 accredited with about 350 in development. Newlin adds that this movement is also international in scope with centers being established in Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Finland, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Peru, Philippines, South Africa, and Sweden.
From the beginning, the child advocacy center field has been research driven. The ground-breaking research of the University’s Family Research Laboratory (FRL) and CCRC, which was established in 1998, has provided those on the frontlines with real data to leverage public opinion, policies, and the further development of the child advocacy centers.
For example, in 1980, researchers from the FRL found that children are three times more likely than adults to be seriously assaulted by members of their families. In 1999, the CCRC published its National Crime Victimization Survey, stating that youth 12 to 17 are two to three times more likely than adults to be victims of assault, robbery, or rape. In 2005, CCRC published its findings from The victimization of children and youth: A comprehensive, national survey. They found that 1 in 12 youth experienced sexual victimization, including sexual assault and attempted or completed rape.
This research is published, presented at conferences such as the CCRC’s renowned annual International Family Violence and Child Victimization Research Conference, and incorporated into national standards for child advocacy centers and the training of law enforcement and other key personnel. And yes, it makes headlines.
What works? What can improve?
Program evaluation research is seen as particularly important by the CCRC as child abuse interventions have become more popular and are set up in communities around the country. Lisa Jones, a research associate professor of psychology, along with her colleagues at the CCRC, undertook an initial program evaluation study of child advocacy centers.
According to Jones, evaluation research is critical to understanding what works in preventing and responding to child victimization crimes.
“The CCRC is interested in making sure that interventions that are funded and established are those that have the best chance of making a difference for children,” Jones says. “To their credit, the child advocacy centers that we worked with were very welcoming of the chance to take part in an evaluation and that takes real commitment to research and improvement. I think they learned quite a bit about what they were doing—what worked and which program goals needed more consideration.”
The study focused on four large well-established child advocacy centers and compared them to communities with no center. The findings suggested some important positive results for the centers.
Results from the study, published in 2007, indicated that child advocacy centers increased the number of children who accessed medical exams and referrals for mental health treatment. The study also found that caregivers whose children were seen at a child advocacy center were more satisfied with the investigation than those in communities that did not have a child advocacy center.
Child advocacy centers were established to reduce the number of interviews youth experienced during an investigation. The study found that now most children in all communities usually underwent only one interview. Jones and her colleagues believe that the primary concern for victims is the need to coordinate efforts and have critical community professionals involved to listen, understand what happened, and help.
This past January, the CCRC published new national child abuse statistics for 2009 that showed a significant decline trend in sexual abuse. A 5 percent decline from 2008 to 2009 caps a trend dating from 1992 during which cases have declined by 61 percent to a new low of 65,700.
Finkelhor noted that child sexual assault is a problem that has been aggressively targeted by school programs and other prevention efforts. “The overall level of children’s victimization is still shockingly high,” Finkelhor said, “but we are making considerable progress. This positive news should inspire people to push forward and expand their efforts.”
Jones agrees that the decline is encouraging. “We believe it is caused, in part, by the improved protection of children that has taken place over the past two decades,” Jones says, “along with the greater engagement of many professionals in keeping children safe from harm. Child advocacy centers have been an active component of that improved protection.”
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