MEDIA - When a child has been sexually abused, many authority figures, from detectives and prosecutors to doctors and therapists, spring into action to help. But the ordeal of telling one adult after another what has happened can be difficult for a child who is already hurt and scared.
To help children heal and prosecute perpetrators more successfully, a Delaware County organization hopes to open a one-stop shop for a variety of law enforcement and child welfare agencies to coordinate their response to child-sex-abuse cases.
According to the plan, once an abuse case is reported to any local police department in the county, the child would come to the new center. A forensic interviewer, specially trained to work with child victims, would talk to the child while law enforcement officers, medical personnel, and others involved in the case watch via video hookup.
The concept - called a children's advocacy center - has gained support nationwide. Family Support Line, which has run abuse-prevention education programs and therapy sessions for victims and their family members for 25 years, has taken the lead on opening such a center in its Media office.
"A big part of the Children's Advocacy Center and forensic interviewing is really being child-centered, the whole center - to have it be a warm, welcoming place for the child to feel as comfortable as possible, given that they're going to be talking about something that might be quite uncomfortable for them," said Deirdre Gordon, the county's administrator for Children and Youth Services.
District Attorney Jack Whelan said that the county already instructs local police departments that specially trained officers on his staff should conduct interviews of child victims, with the aim of preventing repeated interviews. The new center would employ designated forensic interviewers and use video equipment to record the conversations, to gain accreditation from the National Children's Alliance.
The national organization names other benefits of the coordinated response model. Combining agencies' work saves as much as $1,000 per case, the organization said. And children interviewed at a children's advocacy center have been referred for physical and mental health services much more often than those interviewed at police stations and other locations.
Supporters of the model also say that it promotes successful prosecution of abusers.
"What happens each time a child is interviewed is they're retraumatized and they have to live through the experience again," said Abbie Newman, the executive director of Montgomery County's children's advocacy center, Mission Kids. "They feel like they're not being believed."
Newman said that the process of repeated interviews might weaken child sex abuse cases in court in several ways. Children might refuse to testify by the time they are asked to tell their story again in court. Defense attorneys might question a child's story if multiple investigators have recorded slightly different versions. Police stations are less likely than children's advocacy centers to record the first interview on tape.
The National Children's Alliance cites research studies showing that jurisdictions with such centers charge perpetrators more quickly and more often, and sentence convicted abusers to longer prison terms.
The four other Southeastern Pennsylvania counties already have these centers, though Newman, who is also president of the state chapter of National Children's Advocacy Center, says that two-thirds of Pennsylvania counties do not.
To run a center in Delaware County will cost $300,000 to $500,000 per year, Patricia Kosinski, the executive director of Family Support Line, estimates. Most of that money would go to the salaries of the center's staff - the specialized interviewer, a program director, an advocate to connect families with follow-up care, and a receptionist to watch over siblings in the waiting room. Family Support Line also needs to buy specialized video equipment.
Kosinski said that the organization is hoping for federal, state, and private foundation grants to fund the cost of the center. She estimates that the center would serve about 400 children per year.
Joseph Dougherty, the director of the county's Human Services Department, expressed his appreciation for Family Support Line's leadership of the project and his confidence that it will open within a year.
"It would be best for the children involved. Everyone's feeling very good about it," he said. "Looking at the results in other counties and the results around the state, this is the way to go."