Get Out and Give Back: Teamwork for Alexandria’s Children

by WL Author

The CAC is a child-focused community-based agency that coordinates the investigation, prosecution, treatment and prevention of all manner of child abuse in Alexandria. It was developed using the National Children’s Advocacy Center (NCAC) model established in 1985 by former U.S. Representative Robert E. “Bud” Cramer, when he was a district attorney in Huntsville, AL.

Structured to minimize an abused child’s trauma, the NCAC model brings together all of the professionals who work on a child’s behalf-policemen, social workers, counselors, doctors, nurses, district attorneys-so a child only needs to tell the painful story of abuse once.

Every detail of the CAC reflects the deliberate planning for a child’s comfort. Two doors on either side of the CAC entryway, painted the same pastel blue as the walls and nearly invisible, lead down two separate hallways. The door on the right opens to a hallway of offices used by the city’s child protection specialists and therapists. The door on the left leads to the investigation wing where police and the district attorney set up office. Opposite them are cheerfully painted yet tranquil rooms where the children are interviewed. Each of those rooms has toys, games, kid-sized table and chairs and a video camera in the corner. A large window in each room offers a view of a nearby woods. These are the interview rooms where the children tell their stories of abuse.

The room is child-friendly but uncluttered to help the children decompress, said CAC executive director Giselle Pelaez. Too much visual stimulation can cause a child to become confused, especially if they are already traumatized. And the kid-centric emphasis pays off in more ways than one, Pelaez said. The children give more forensically sound, compelling testimony, which has resulted in an increased number of pleas from perpetrators.

The CAC opened in April of 2007 after seven years of planning, and is structured as a public/private partnership. While not all NCAC are established that way, Pelaez believes that arrangement works best in Alexandria.

“The beauty of a public/private partnership is that in the last couple of years when government funding has been steadily decreasing we’ve been able to rally private funds,” she said. Private support has allowed the CAC to finance specialized training for each of the detectives and social workers, which is partly why the children’s testimonies have been so legally defensible.

The added benefit of a private partner also allows them to marshal resources for specific, time-critical needs (for example, to purchase clothing when children need immediate removal from an unsafe home) and to host fundraisers for CAC, such as the upcoming Oscar Night Gala on February 24 at the Belle Haven Country Club.

The CAC also partners with the Giving Circle of Alexandria, ACT for Alexandria and SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now) for their citywide playgroup initiative, and is tip-toeing into corporate partnerships for its annual Family Fun Days.

Ready to start an NCAC in your community? There are approximately 600 centers across the country, and the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Virginia has all of the online tools to get started. But with so many agencies collaborating, you might need to break a few eggs to make the omelet.

Be patient and crack the eggs gently. The kids deserve it.

Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. She also established game nights for at-risk families throughout the country. You can contact her at www.getoutandgiveback.com.

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