Child Advocacy Center provides compassionate care to children who have experienced abuse

Child Advocacy Center provides compassionate care to children who have experienced abuse

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, families endured staggering unemployment rates, health burdens and financial strain. Parents balanced raising and educating their children while remaining isolated from assistance. Unfortunately, alongside these stressors, pediatricians expected to see an increase in child abuse and neglect.

Initially, promising data was released — an 18% decrease in rates of reported child abuse and neglect in 2020 compared to 2019, with some monthly decreases as high as 40%. What became apparent, however, was that child abuse and neglect continued behind closed doors. Fewer reports were made, not because abuse and neglect were not occurring, but likely because children were separated from mandated reporters, such as teachers, physicians and social workers. This is reflected by a paralleled 1.2% increase in hospitalizations from emergency department visits due to child abuse and neglect-related injury, despite a 53% decrease in emergency department visits for similar complaints during that time.

Although doors have re-opened and some normalcy regained, children remain at-risk of falling victim to abuse and neglect. When this occurs, children deserve empathetic, victim-centered, trauma-informed care provided by specialists in the field of abuse and neglect. This is the goal of the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) at the Hoops Family Children’s Hospital at Cabell Huntington Hospital, a member of Mountain Health Network. Led by director Melanie Akers, M.S.N., medical director Marie Frazier, .M.D., and coordinator Angela Seay, M.S., the CAC provides a comprehensive multidisciplinary team including medical providers, child protective service representatives, victim advocates, mental health professionals, forensic interviewers, police investigators and prosecutors. This team promotes a safe space for victims to not only share their stories, but also receive individualized medical and mental health care in a child-friendly environment. This promotes healing and minimizes further traumatization of victims and their families.

A foundational aspect of the CAC is the forensic interview, often the first step of an investigation. This is conducted by an interviewer whose expertise is directing questions in an open, non-biased, emotionally sensitive manner and at a pace comfortable to the victims. Victims are in control of the interview and are never expected to answer questions or continue the interview if they are uncomfortable in doing so. With the victims’ and families’ permission, interviews are recorded to prevent victims from repeating their traumatic events to physicians, law enforcement and others involved in the investigation. This allows the victim to instead focus on recovery.

Based on answers provided during the interview, the multidisciplinary team, victims and families collectively determine which services to utilize. At times, investigations are expanded to include a medical exam, medical treatment and collection of physical evidence and/or photographs. This is again performed only with the victims’ and families’ permission and always in a compassionate manner. Other services victims may benefit from include courtroom preparation, therapy, and/or victim advocacy, all of which are offered through the CAC.

The CAC proves to be an essential resource in the promotion of justice and healing for victims of child abuse and neglect, especially as recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic continues. It is the only hospital-based child advocacy program in the Huntington area and serves victims of Cabell County, but aids in the referral of victims outside its jurisdiction to their respective centers. If you suspect child abuse or neglect, please call the Child Advocacy Center at 304-526-2349 or the West Virginia Child Abuse and Neglect Centralized Intake at 1-800-352-6513. Anonymous referrals may be made.

This article originally appears in the July 25, 2021, edition of the Herald Dispatch


Lauren Tufts, MD

Lauren Tufts, MD, is a pediatric hospital medicine fellow with Marshall University Joan C. Edwards Schools of Medicine.