DOVER — Reporting abuse can be stressful for a victim and their loved ones, so when people walk through the doors of Strafford County Child Advocacy Center, there are comfortable places to sit, and games and magazines to peruse.
The center opened in November 2006 to better respond to child and adult sexual assaults. On average, they now process 250 cases a year.
“We see here not only children, but we also see adults who are reporting sexual assaults, domestic violence cases, other violent crimes. I would say the history of the Child Advocacy Center movement is rooted in child sexual abuse cases, but here what we’ve really come to include is any sort of traumatic violent crime that is witnessed by child or adult,” said Director Caitlin Massey.
By placing the victim in a private room with a forensic interviewer and videotaping their statements while members of law enforcement watch via livestream, prosecutors get the information they need with the least amount of trauma, according to County Attorney Thomas Velardi.
“We look at what’s the best way to get an all-encompassing statement from someone without sliding a piece of paper in front of them and saying, ‘Write down everything you remember,’” Velardi said.
Velardi said Strafford County has been conducting interviews this way since 1987. He said this model has been helpful for his department as it makes the tough decisions about whether or not to move forward with criminal charges for those who have been accused.
“A lot of the cases that do come through here actually end up sometimes providing exonerating information, which is just as important to get as incriminating information for cases we want to move forward on,” Velardi said.
There are 14 Child Advocacy Centers in New Hampshire. Joy Barrett, executive director for Granite State Children’s Alliance, which provides resources and training for the centers, said the centers serve 2,100 people a year.
Barrett said the center in Laconia has expanded services, so on the first floor forensic interviews can take place, and on the second floor there are health and treatment options. Starting in November, the center will be able to conduct medical evaluations as well.
“I’m very proud of the changes we’ve made as far as the services we offer in Laconia,” Barrett said.
Barrett said although some of the stigma about reporting sexual assault has diminished with the #MeToo movement, nine out of 10 children being abused do not tell anyone about it.
Barrett said it is often difficult for adults to recognize the signs of abuse, so there is a training program for people who work with children.
“There’s never a full checklist. It’s really about knowing a child and their behavior,” Barrett said.
The effects of child sexual abuse on victims can have devastating short- and long-term mental and physical effects, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. Younger children may display regressive behaviors, such as thumb sucking or bed wetting.
A child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse may develop low self-esteem and an abnormal or distorted view of sex.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 93% of child sexual abuse perpetrators are known to their victims: 59% are acquaintances, and 34% are family members.
For more information about Child Advocacy Centers in New Hampshire, visit cac-nh.org.