The sight of a frightened child, repeatedly recounting to authorities for abuse or other trauma experience is more a relic of the past than a present reality, thanks to child advocacy centers.
In 1995, hundreds of professionals came together to start the Denver Children’s Advocacy Center. Multidisciplinary teams that include social workers, police investigators, physicians, prosecutors and doctors follow up cases as a group, providing support to children and families.
“People realized that crime victims were having to tell their stories over and over again,” said center director Michelle Davis. “Many professionals in the field felt that children victims of these crimes were basically falling through the cracks.”
A child may tell the story to a teacher, then to a school counselor or nurse, a social worker, to the police, and then possibly during a trial. Davis said that recounting a traumatic experience over and over again can be painful in itself.
“Children’s advocacy centers were established to find a fair, safe place for a child to come and speak and tell that story at once,” Davis said.
The Denver center has specialists trained and certified to conduct forensic interviews. The interviewer sits with a child in a friendly environment at the center or in a space shared by a multidisciplinary team. The interviewer asks non-key questions in a way that is convenient for the child.
Other team members who are out of sight can view or monitor the recorded interview. A report is written and shared with the team.
The center’s forensic interviewers use a nationally recognized, research-based protocol to talk to children, Sargent said. Eric Denke of the Denver Police Department’s Missing and Exploited Persons Unit.
“These methods lead to a better interview of the child that is based on their memories and not a rigid set of questions and answers,” Denke said in an email. “They conduct interviews in a way that doesn’t involve a lot of things that you might anticipate in a police interview if you’ve watched TV. It can help them (the kids) because they often narrate traumatic events.” are what they are revealing.”
Denke said the police department is responsible for the overall criminal investigation and preparation of the case for submission to the prosecutor. Children may still have to testify in court, he said, but the amount of testimony is often limited because of forensic interviews.
“Having a forensic interview program makes us a children’s advocacy center,” Davis said. “But beyond the forensic interview program, we do a lot more.”
The center provides treatment and other services to children and families. Davis said the center works with family members who are not guilty of abuse to try to keep the family together.
The center also works to prevent abuse in schools, and educates families and the community about child development. Davis said the center works with underserved communities and has bilingual therapists and interviewers. The program provides services to satellite offices in the metro area.
Daniela Perez, one of the bilingual therapists who works with children, adolescents and their parents, said the traumas children are dealing with include physical, sexual and domestic abuse. Some children are adults.
“We work with kiddos as soon as they can start walking and as soon as they can start talking. We meet them on their needs,” Perez said.
Perez said staff members use art, sports and other methods of treatment. When parents are in the process of being deported, she has found herself working more intensely with the whole family.
“Children are affected socially and emotionally. Their grades are affected, their family arrangements are affected,” Perez said. “I can’t stop the deportation, but I’m here to help as we await the court and verdict.”
During the pandemic, staff conducted therapy sessions via video or telephone. “We got creative with how the therapy was offered,” Perez said.
Davis said the number of people serving the center has increased over the years. Therapists met 1,004 children in 2020 and conducted 508 forensic interviews. A year ago, the physician looked at 992 children and conducted 646 interviews.
Davis said that without therapy, children who have suffered trauma can experience anxiety and depression, abuse alcohol and drugs, and drop out of school.
“Medication and early prevention are very important to empower a child to live their best life and not let this event define them,” Davis said of any trauma. “It may be a part of them, but it won’t define them and they can be a good, working adult.”
Organization Name: Denver Children’s Advocacy Center
Address: 2149 Federal Blvd., Denver
In operation since: 1995
Number of Employees: 22
Annual budget: $2.4 million