Child Advocacy Centers offer safe place for abused to begin healing
The walls of the Child Advocacy Center in Manchester are covered with the brightly colored handprints of the children who have walked through those doors to tell their stories.
It's a powerful symbol of courage and healing and a sobering reminder of how widespread child sexual abuse remains.
Fourteen years after the first Child Advocacy Center (CAC) opened in Rockingham County, the Granite State Children's Alliance now has a statewide network of 10 such centers, with locations in each county.
The Alliance held a rally at the State House last Wednesday to promote its "Beat the Odds" campaign to build awareness of child sexual abuse. On display were 2,000 pinwheels, representing the number of children interviewed by experts at CACs in New Hampshire each year.
Until last week, Kristie Palestino was executive director of the GSCA; she was just tapped by the National Children's Alliance to become its director of chapter development. It's a recognition of the force Palestino has been on this issue in the Granite State for the past decade.
In 2002, Palestino was a social worker for the state and would often meet with young victims at the CAC in Portsmouth. Two years later, she started the state's second CAC in Nashua, building a local coalition of law enforcement, child welfare advocates, and legal and medical professionals who work together to investigate cases of suspected child sexual abuse.
The Child Advocacy Center model came out of Tennessee in the 1980s, Palestino said: "A children-friendly place where a child can come and be interviewed by this one person who's specially trained in interviewing children."
A "forensic interviewer" meets alone with the child, while the other professionals watch on closed-circuit TV in another room.
There are now about 750 CACs across the country.
Before such places existed, Palestino said, children who disclosed sexual abuse would have to tell their stories repeatedly, to school nurses, social workers, police, doctors and therapists.
"Children were interviewed on average eight times for one disclosure they were making," Palestino said. "It's incredibly traumatizing for a child."
And some details might change with every new telling, she said. "That's reasonable doubt. So the cases were going nowhere, and children were looked at as not being reliable."
Palestino said CAC teams include mental health counselors as well as law enforcement officers. "So not only are we getting a good record of what happened to this child so we can get a positive prosecution, but this child has the opportunity to heal."
That support is especially important because the grim reality is that in 95 percent of abuse cases, "the child knows and loves the offender," she said.
"This is not just difficult for the child; this is rocking the world of the whole family. And if we don't right out of the gate get support and help to those family members, denial is very powerful, and it's very easy to say, 'There's no way that this happened.'"
Enfield Police Chief Richard Crate Jr. remembers how differently child sexual abuse investigations were handled 25 years ago when he was a rookie officer.
"I would focus on getting just enough information from the child to be able to see who did this and then try to build a case against this person based on statements, confessions, those types of things."
When Crate learned of plans to start a CAC for Grafton and Sullivan counties, he signed on to train as a forensic interviewer.
"Now it's a team approach," he said. "We're all learning from each other how to best serve the child."
The mental health support is a critical component, he said. He's seen cases in which victims didn't get appropriate counseling and grew up to be abusers themselves.
Research also shows a strong correlation between childhood sexual abuse and later problems, such as mental illness, substance abuse, crime, domestic violence, even poverty, Palestino said. However, the incidence of such problems drops significantly if a child is believed and helped, she said.
Melanie Sachs of Salem was just 12 when a 17-year-old distant cousin of her best friend sexually assaulted the two girls 10 years ago. They promised each other they wouldn't tell anyone.
But after her friend finally told her mother what had happened, Sachs found herself at the Child Advocacy Center in Derry. Her interviewer was Kristie Palestino.
Almost at once, Sachs said, "I just had this sense of the fear going away."
"Finally, although I was scared to tell, it was almost like a weight was being lifted off my shoulders because I didn't have to keep that inside anymore," she said.
She's 22 now and still has the stuffed bear Palestino let her pick out "because of my courage for talking to her."
After two years of legal wrangling, Sachs' attacker pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual assault and spent 27 days in jail.
Sachs studied sociology and criminal justice at Keene State College, graduating last year. She's now a crisis advocate in an AmeriCorps victim assistance program, working at a domestic violence crisis center.
"My hope is to one day be that interviewer that Kristie was for me," she said.
Sachs also tells her own story now, hoping to inspire other young victims to come forward. Her message to children who are keeping terrible secrets: "The earlier you tell, the earlier that healing process starts."
Chief Crate said some victims, especially teens, resist going to counseling, insisting they're fine. Here's what he tells them: "If your arm was broken, we wouldn't even be discussing you going to see a doctor. You've been hurt, and you need to go talk to somebody so you can heal from it."
It's a matter of public safety to start talking about child sexual abuse more openly, he said. "These are crimes of secrecy."
Indeed, Palestino said statistics show that only one of 10 children who are sexually abused comes forward to tell. That means for every child represented by those 2,000 pinwheels last week at the State House, "there are nine other ones that are out there suffering in silence."
That's what all those handprints are about at the Manchester CAC. Erin Battis, the forensic interviewer there, said it's a powerful message for children who come for the first time to see the handprints of all the others who have told their stories.
"Every kid that comes in here feels like they're the only one this has happened to," she said. "It's a good reminder they're not the only ones."
That's also what the Beat the Odds campaign is for, Palestino said. "This is what we need to talk about," she said. "Let's not keep it a secret anymore."
To find a Child Advocacy Center and for tips on talking with your child about "body safety," go to cac-nh.org.