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Don't Turn Your Back on Victims of Child Abuse | Commentary

In America, nearly five children die every day from abuse and neglect. Even more frightening, every 13 seconds, a child is abused. The effect of this abuse is felt not only by the victims and their families, but also in the communities in which they live. I know this because, as an Alabama district attorney, I saw the fallout each and every day.

In the 1980s, I prosecuted thousands of cases as district attorney for Madison County, Ala. And while all crime is sad and unjust, the most troubling cases — cases I will never forget — are the cases involving child abuse victims. What made things worse was that instead of helping these victims, I found that our legal system retraumatized these children over and over again by requiring child abuse victims to recount and relive their abuse in multiple interviews, at every step in the process. And I, as D.A., was just one step in that process.

I remember prosecuting a child abuse case, and when it was my turn to interview the child, I had her once again retell her story. It was at this point that her grandmother explained that this was her 11th time recounting the abuse and asked me why I wasn’t talking to my colleagues who had already heard the story. You know, it was a good question and one that stopped me in my tracks. I had to ask myself, why aren’t we talking to each other — social workers, law enforcement, prosecutors and victims advocates? We all touched the case at some point, but had yet to coordinate any part of the investigation. So, I decided to change that. I gathered my colleagues and starting talking. And in 1985, I organized a multidisciplinary team system, one that talked to each other, to better help abused children. I involved Child Protective Services workers, law enforcement, detectives, mental-health advocates and medical practitioners with me.

Our first stab at this new approach was the creation of the National Children’s Advocacy Center. Our vision was to provide a child-friendly place for these children and their families to feel safe and get help, a place where interviews could be coordinated. At the same time, I continued to gather a network of professionals to share experiences and learn from each other. The goal and mission of our network was to support the victims, their families and the larger community by providing a coordinated investigation and a more comprehensive response to child victims. A decade later, we formalized this network as the National Children’s Alliance, with a goal to have a presence throughout the country in every state.

When I was elected to Congress in 1990, I was proud to continue my support of the program. The National Children’s Advocacy Center, the National Children’s Alliance, Regional Children’s Advocacy Centers and the more than 800 individual Children’s Advocacy Centers are excellent examples of dollars well spent through both public and private investment. Last year alone, CACs not only helped almost 280,000 child victims of abuse throughout the country but helped communities save an average of $1,000 per case compared to those communities without a CAC.

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