The York County Children's Advocacy Center has expanded its services to spare 14-17-year-old abuse victims the trauma of repeated interviews about the crimes inflicted on them.
Since implementing the change on June 1, the center has interviewed dozens of children who otherwise would have been questioned by the District Attorney's Office. They now conduct interviews with local child abuse victims ages 3-17 — all victims of alleged sexual abuse, as well as children subject to "extreme" physical abuse or witnesses to violent crime.
The District Attorney's Office approached the center about making the shift to standardize the procedure for handling child abuse cases and make it easier on the victims, said Jennifer Russell, first assistant district attorney.
"Our attorneys did a nice job, but they're attorneys. They're not trained specifically in conducting interviews ... with minors who have had traumatic things happen to them," Russell said.
She said having children go to the center as opposed to the courthouse for their interviews also made the entire process less "daunting and intimidating."
More cases: Teenagers in the 14-17 age range now make up about one-third of the Children's Advocacy Center's interviews. The change comes alongside a rise in cases across the board as legislation has expanded the definition of abuse, said Deborah Harrison, the center's executive director.
Harrison said the center has seen a 25 to 30 percent increase in net referrals since taking in more 14-17-year-olds, for a total of 59 cases in June and about the same number in July. Previously, they would only interview children in the 14-17 age range deemed "particularly vulnerable," Harrison said.
The center's interviewers speak with children one-on-one. A detective and sometimes an assistant district attorney and youth worker watch a live feed in another room. Harrison said the interviews are "non-invasive" and sometimes rescheduled several months out if children are not ready or open to speaking.
"We want a free disclosure from the child, and sometimes kids aren't ready to talk," Harrison said.
Nicole Lehr, a family advocate with the center, said moving the cases away from the district attorney's office helps makes cases less about prosecution and more about victim support.
Only a fraction of child abuse cases go to court because they are very difficult to prosecute, Harrison said. Because Pennsylvania's constitution gives defendants the right to meet their accuser in court, children may have to testify against their alleged abusers in person.
Secondary Trauma: More people coming forward about child abuse might be a positive sign the message is getting out, Lehr said. But Harrison noted increasing numbers of cases means greater burden on staffers who run the risk of suffering secondary trauma.
"(Interviewing) is intense, and so that's the other thing that we'll be monitoring," Harrison said. "It's one thing to have enough staff to do the interviews but what kind of impact it's having on them is an important thing to consider."
Ashley Rehm, the center's only full-time forensic interviewer, has conducted 475 interviews in the two years she has worked there.
"It's just making things very busy here for us," Rehm said.
— Reach Michael Tabb at firstname.lastname@example.org.