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Monongalia County Child Advocacy Center helps children who have experienced trauma

The Monongalia County Child Advocacy Center is a nonprofit agency that supports and collaborates with other local agencies to work as “the front-line responders in Monongalia County to reports of child sexual abuse and children who have experienced violence.”

Monongalia County Child Advocacy Center executive director and licensed psychologist Dr. Laura Capage is a founding director of the center and has been with it since its inception just over 16 years ago. She said her role in the beginning stages of the center’s formation was to get the agency up and running.

Capage said  in 2004, Monongalia County became serious about wanting a child advocacy center in the area. The Monongalia Child Advocacy Center opened a year later. She said  child advocacy centers were created because people recognized  children were being revictimized by the system designed to protect them.

“At their core, child advocacy centers are about systems change,” Capage said.

How it’s funded

The services provided by the  center are free to the  families it serves because child abuse is not a child’s fault, and they deserve all of the support and services available, Capage said.

However, there is a cost for the services provided, the function of the center and the compensation of the agency’s staff.

“How we exist is through a variety of funding services. Certainly, we write a lot of grants, we hold fundraisers, we have private donors that just donate to us. It’s certainly very important that the community helps with [raising] those funds,” Capage said.

Capage said   fundraisers have been difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. The center’s biggest fundraiser, Girl’s Night Out, was canceled  both last year and this year.

“That’s left a huge gap in our funding that we’re struggling with just to make sure that we’re not turning children away and can be there when kids and families need us,” Capage said.

Individuals can make private donations and  show their support for the  center by volunteering to help with its upkeep.

The agency is  working to create an ambassador program, where individuals can spread the word about the center and make sure  people know of the services offered.

How it works

The Monongalia County Child Advocacy Center helps any child who has been abused, neglected, is at risk or has experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Capage said the agency specializes in children who have been traumatized.

When there are serious concerns, a team approach is taken in Monongalia County. The multidisciplinary teams in Mon County include law enforcement, prosecutors, child protective services, educators, victim advocates, mental health and medical professionals and the child advocacy center.

Serious cases must be processed through the  center. Children undergo forensic interviews at the center by one of the mental health providers, who have undergone extensive training in interviewing children in a way that is developmentally appropriate and doesn’t re-traumatize them. Investigators are usually present onsite, observing the interview as it is occurring so  they can communicate with the forensic interviewer and make sure  they get the information they need.

After a forensic interview, child advocacy center staff spend time doing a mental health screening of the child  and speak with the non-offending parents about the family’s strengths and needs in order to link the family with the appropriate services, some of which the center offers onsite.

“Sometimes, kids just may be directly referred for our mental health services. We provide trauma-focused assessments and treatments and that’s really our specialty in the community,” Capage said.

Staff  continue to advocate for children during legal proceedings. They collaborate with the prosecutor’s office to make sure  families have support. If a child has to testify in court, advocates will accompany the families to hearings. They also provide emotional support to children, so  they are able to testify without becoming emotional or upset.

Building resiliency to battle long-term effects

Capage said childhood trauma and ACEs result in continued adversity throughout a person’s life.

“We know the more trauma that children experience in childhood, the more likely that they’re going to have long-term negative effects. We know that kids who have been traumatized in childhood are going to be more likely to have physical health problems. They’re going to be more likely to have mental health problems. They’re going to be more likely to have substance abuse problems. They’re going to be more likely to struggle with holding down jobs and struggle in interpersonal relationships. They’re going to be more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system,” she said.

She said the way to counteract those negative effects is to build resilience, as children who are resilient are less likely to experience negative long-term problems stemming from abuse in childhood.

The child advocacy center provides three resiliency-building services, one of which is the forensic interview. The forensic interview is an opportunity for a child to talk about their experiences, begin to process what  happened and to start the healing process.

Tammy LaBarge, lead family advocate and forensic interviewer, said the interview process used at the child advocacy center is kid-friendly and centered around the comfort of the child. The interview is scripted in that interviewers want to cover all areas of safety, but not so scripted that the questions are leading.

“We give them lots of opportunities to just share their story,” LaBarge said.

Forensic interviewers assess the entirety of the child’s situation and home life through the script. The interview is fluid, so it doesn’t feel like the interviewer is barraging the child with questions. Interviewers inform a child of what is going to happen, assess how the child is feeling, show the child the interview room beforehand and inform the child that others will be watching the interview, she said.

“We always explain it like, ‘The people that are watching; we’re all here to keep kids safe. Our job is to keep kids safe.’ We approach it in that manner, so they feel a little more at ease,” she said.

LaBarge said  after the interview, the interviewer meets with the child off-camera to assess how they  feel at that moment.

“We’re always trying to be aware of how the child is feeling and what the child needs at all times,” LaBarge said.

Family advocacy is the second resiliency-building service  provided. Family advocacy offers community support through working with the court system, the child welfare system and the school system to make sure  everyone who interacts with children who have been abused are trauma-sensitive and understand how to support the child.

The third resiliency-building service  is therapy, which focuses on the child’s healing, processing and shifting the child’s self-image from  victim to  survivor.

Elizabeth Tomasik, therapist and provisionally licensed counselor, shared a metaphor she uses to explain the concept of therapy.

“Many times, life is like a beautiful flower bed in the middle of spring — the flowers are thriving, growing and proud — when unexpectedly the sun goes behind the clouds, and a storm comes by. This storm may bend some of the flower stems and push them down and hurt them. Sometimes a storm even lasts for a few days and appears like it will never pass. But then one day, the sun begins to peek behind the clouds. This represents hope. Then comes along someone to help. They tape the broken stems and add some water to the plants with care. These flowers have deep, strong and resilient roots below the surface. With care, time and love, the flowerbed begins to thrive again. It is a healing process that we are honored to bear witness to,” Tomasik said.

She said it is not a therapist’s job to fix what has happened or to fix people themselves, but to help patients heal by tapping into their own strength.

The cost of child abuse

 Capage said the child advocacy center also helps children and their non-offending caregivers understand the court process and what kind of interventions or therapy they need so  they can heal, survive and blossom as they mature into adulthood.

She said one of the reasons it is so important to intervene with children who have been abused is that you can change the trajectory of their lives.

“The total lifetime estimated financial cost associated with just one year of confirmed cases of child maltreatment is approximately $124 billion. So, we know there are so many costs with child abuse, and so if we can help kids heal and build resilience, we are going to decrease those costs. Not only will children do better, but our community will do better, and that’s part of why it’s so important to invest in supporting a child advocacy center. We certainly don’t want kids who are hurting; we don’t want them to mature into adults who are hurting. That intervention helps save lots of money down the road,” Capage said.

There are many ways  non-offending caregivers can create a positive healing environment for a child who has been traumatized. First, it is important to listen to a child — when they want to share what their experience is, when they want to talk, it is important to listen and validate their feelings.

“It’s very important that non-offending caregivers send a message to a child that it’s not their fault. Kids often blame themselves. Often, their perpetrators plant that in their mind — ‘It is your fault. If you tell anybody, they will think you’re awful. You will get in trouble’ — so it’s very important to counter that message. That’s something else that non-offending caregivers can do,” Capage said.

It’s also important that non-offending caregivers educate themselves about how abuse impacts children by talking to a child’s therapist to learn how they can best support the child.

The role of education

Capage said education comes into play in multiple ways, one being the importance of ensuring  children comprehend body safety education.

This helps children understand their bodies, personal space and what’s OK and not OK, starting in infancy. This includes making sure  children have names for their private parts and can communicate about them, as well as making sure  children know  they get to make decisions about how people enter their personal space and interact with them.

“Kids need to know what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, and how to get out of difficult situations,” she said.

There’s also education  parents and adults need to have regarding how to protect children, how to educate children and even understanding that no one — teachers, coaches, Scout leaders, Sunday school instructors — should be alone one-on-one with a child.

Capage said educators and coaches should receive training on how to interact with children. Some of the children those individuals interact with may have trauma histories and may misinterpret their interactions and view them as being inappropriate in ways  the individual did not intend.

“Anybody who is having interactions with children definitely need to educate themselves about the safest way to do that and being mindful of how their actions could be interpreted by children with trauma histories,” she said.

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