December 6, 2021

On behalf of the child

Advocacy center becomes state pilot platform

S.N. Briere/staff reporter

Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti sits at a kids table in the play area of Child Advocacy Center with advocate Megan Thomas. The center, which is under Perfetti’s department, works with victims of abuse and offer children a safe space to play when they are at the center. The center was recently picked to be a pilot site to help other centers across the state determine successful habits to implement.

The girl walked into the center and placed the stuffed pig back on the shelf — the pig she took with her after describing the abuse she endured.

“She said she didn’t want that anymore and picked out a different one,” said Kris Beard, the coordinator for the Cortland County Child Advocacy Center. “To me that was a symbol that the pig helped her through that tough time in her life.”

The girl was moving on, past the toughest times. “This brand new pig after two weeks was looking like it had been years,” Beard said.

“It was definitely loved on,” said Megan Thomas, a victim advocate.

The child advocacy center helps abused children and their families learn to cope with the abuse and guides and supports them through the abusers’ criminal process.

What is abuse?

Child abuse includes physical abuse, physical neglect, sexual abuse and emotional/mental maltreatment.

The facts

  • 1 in 10 children will be abused before they turn 18.
  • More than 23,000 victims received services in 2018 through 41 child advocacy centers in 53 counties.
    Of those:
  • 6,204 got therapy onsite.
  • 3,308 got medical exams.
  • 14,279 did a forensic interview.
  • 19,818 used a victim advocate to help them through the process

What parents can do
18 months: Teach your child the proper name for body parts.
Ages 3 to 5: Teach your child about “private parts” of the body and how to say “no” to any touching that seems wrong or makes the child uncomfortable.
Ages 5 to 8: Discuss safety away from home, being touched in private parts of the body, which are areas covered by a bathing suit, and never touching someone else’s private parts. Encourage your child to talk about scary experiences.
Ages 8 to 12: Stress personal safety and give examples of possible dangerous areas, such as locker rooms, malls, social media sites and isolated places. Discuss the family’s expectations regarding sexual conduct.
Ages 13 to 18: Continue to stress personal safety and potentially higher risk locations. Discuss issues such as sexual assault and abuse and your family’s standards of sexual conduct.

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call the New York State Public Hotline: 800-342-3720. If the child is in immediate danger, call 911.
— Source: NYS Children’s Alliance

That helps comes through arranging counseling, making sure there is a friendly face in the courtroom, getting medical care and even reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses. Or a stuffed animal for a little bit of comfort.

The child advocacy center was recently named one of three pilot programs by the New York State Children’s Alliance. The alliance would work with the sites to understand and develop best practices, for themselves and for other centers to use.

To do that, the center must hire a multi-disciplinary team facilitator.

“I would hope it’s going to improve the current services that we already do provide,” Beard said. “Maybe it’s going to expand on them, maybe it’s going to help all CAC’s in New York state to be able to make some improvements that will help all of us.”

Advancing Cortland’s team

The three-year Children’s Alliance grant for a facilitator comes with the possibility of a two-year extension. That person would help develop the skills and relationships of team members in Cortland, Washington and Jefferson counties.

Beard said with the center’s staff expanding, her work to get more grants and a non-profit that supports the center, she does not always have the time to build upon staff relationships.

“I am really busy with all of these things and I am not able to focus in on this part of my job, and what this person is going to be able to do is to really put more of a focus on that,” she said.

“That multi-disciplinary team is big,” said Patrick Perfetti, the Cortland County district attorney, whose office oversees the center. “Each of our area law enforcement agencies has a representative there, department of Social Services, a lot of our non-profit service providers in the community attend.”

It’s a 20-person team. It’s a lot of people to keep track of, both in organizing the office and for the child victims trying to understand the abuse they’ve already endured.

“The last thing a victim wants to hear is ‘Oh no they’re not here, they can call you back,’ because their problems are immediate,” Perfetti said. “You want to have somebody there to answer the phone.”

And that person would act as the central hub for providing others information from the victim.

“Now they’ve disclosed it most likely once and then they come here and they tell it and they don’t have to tell it again,” Beard said. That used to happen, before advocacy centers like Cortland’s were developed. Nurses, doctors, police, social service, lawyers — they all had to hear the story.

“I think the reality of not having it would be that many victims — they just wouldn’t go through it,” Perfetti said. “They might initially disclose and then when we would explain to them what they would have to keep doing they would just say, ‘no I don’t want to pursue prosecution.’”

Advancing other centers

Cortland’s practices will also help other centers.

“We’re anxious for them to get their team facilitator hired,” said Linda Cleary, the executive director of the New York state Children’s Alliance. What that facilitator, and the other two counterparts, learn will help every advocacy center in the state.

One area the coordinator and facilitators would focus on would be protocols and policies. What they discover would be shared across the state.

“There is no one system, procedure guideline protocol whatever that is going to work across the state,” she said. “One that works for Cortland may not work in Rochester.”

Advocating for the victim and family

Megan Thomas has the same mission as any advocate for victims and their families: Stay with the victim, from beginning to end. Build a relationship.

“I think it’s much easier because you are there from the start,” she said. “If I was to jump in there mid-way, it would be a little more challenging to get that rapport with them.”

She’s there to make them feel comfortable.

“I always come bearing gifts,” she said. “I always have like a game or a toy. I always have something. Like if I know there’s going to be a long day in court, I bring like a tablet or coloring sheets.”

Thomas is also a resource for a victim because the family may not know everything that has happened, but Thomas would be able to talk to them about everything.

“Many times the parents will not become fully aware of what we learn in an interview,” Perfetti said. “Many times the victim doesn’t want the parent to know because they are blaming themselves, they’re wondering what they did to bring this on, there’s shame, there’s guilt. Megan’s a convenient resource, where she’s not a family member.”

Thomas will prepare the victim for trial, “taking them into the courtroom days in advance to show them the room, let them get used to where they’re going to be, how they’re going to testify so when the day comes it’s not going to be all new,” Perfetti said.

She’ll accompany the victim in and out of the courtroom and seat herself so the victim can look at her for comfort while on the stand.

It’s about what the child needs.

Sometimes that need is helping the family get reimbursement through the Office of Victim Services to cover the cost of medical exams and care. One family she helped received $60,000 that way.

Other times it’s staying in contact with the victim or the family, even after the case has concluded.

“My phone’s always open,” Thomas said. “I have a lot of families that still just call and talk.”

Getting counseling

Part of the center’s work includes making sure the victims and their families get appropriate counseling.

“The identified parent or legal guardian is always involved in the very first part of formal assessment,” said Amanda Stout, the regional program director of Cortland County for Family Counseling Services. Sometimes just the victim needs counseling services; sometimes the family members; sometimes joint counseling.

But the counseling doesn’t start until after the victim is through with the criminal process — if they decided to go forward with one — because the counselors don’t want to hinder the center’s ability to interview the person.

Abuse can have long-term effects, Stout said: anxiety, trust issues and sometimes attention deficit disorders.

“Long-term effects of any form of abuse and trauma can manifest in many different ways,” Stout said. “It’s very individualized.”

Those long-term effects can sometimes be exacerbated in situations where the victim was groomed — when the perpetrators build the victims’ trust to manipulate or exploit them later.

People who were groomed will tend to have trust, relationship and attachment issues.

“We’ve had people who have become unfortunately re-victimized again because of that grooming and that’s where self-blame can come in,” she said.

However, every person has a different interpretation of trauma.

“A lot of time there is ongoing family therapy because they’re also coping with everything,” Stout said. “It’s really whatever the family needs we’re willing to make it work.”

Sometimes that is working on ways to prevent abuse from recurring.

Education and prevention

Before Elizabeth Niver joined the center a month ago to do community outreach and education, Thomas also handled educating kids and the community on how to recognize abuse and what to do about it.

Thomas went into schools to teach how to build healthy relationships. She focused on noting everyone is different — how they look, where they come from, how they live.

She would also teach a safety lesson “letting the kids know their body belongs to them and they’re the boss of their bodies,” she said. “The kids really like it. The teachers really like it.”

She would do an exercise where students would identify adults they trust and would talk to if something happened to them.

“That seems to be really effective with the kids, because if you’re in that moment where something has happened, you don’t always know who you’re going to go to, so if you come up with those five people when you’re not under stress it’s easier to think about,” Thomas said.

Niver is now reaching out to school districts about coming in and teaching a new curriculum to kindergarten through eighth grade students on child sexual abuse and exploitation. The new curriculum incorporates videos, music and gestures to remember the items.

“You’re not focusing on the negative and sex abuse and the scary wording,” Beard said. “You’re focusing on healthy relationships and positive things and people you can trust.”

Finding strength

When it comes to helping victims, everything from the slightest smile or laugh to getting justice for a victim is a moment of success for the center’s staff.

“I look at it as when we’re able to help them in some way,” Beard said.

Thomas said victims appreciate that “somebody cared, somebody listened.”

That’s what the center is there for, Thomas said. But coping doesn’t come without struggle.

Stout said counselors have to sometimes work with families that have been broken apart because of the abuse.

“Kids are loyal no matter what,” she said. “They don’t understand. They know something bad happened but they don’t understand why they can’t see mom or dad or grandma or grandpa.”

There’s a lot of self-blame among victims and sometimes on the part of non-offending family members, too.

“A lot of times kids blame themselves for actions of adults around them,” Stout said. That can affect self-worth, value and “has even resulted in self-harm at times.”

A better outcome is when the victim and family power through the tough times.

“I think that takes a lot of strength because this is a process for the children and families to go through,” Stout said. “There’s a lot of family unity that goes on when unfortunately something bad happens.”

Sometimes, she added, the victim gains strength from pursuing legal action and seeing the process through.

“They feel very empowered by being able to work through this process,” she said. “We try to have them focus on that they survived this.”