By Sarah Vidrine, Senior Policy Analyst
Childhood is full of stressful experiences. Normal life stress, like getting a shot or falling off a bike, is part of a healthy childhood and can prepare children for challenging experiences in the future. However, the kind of stress triggered by experiences like child sexual abuse can be toxic and weaken the brain’s architecture, with damaging effects on health, learning and behavior across the lifespan.
The good news is there is a growing body of effective prevention and treatment programs that can help children and their families.
We are fortunate that, in North Carolina, children in 80 counties have access to one of 30 accredited or eight provisional Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) that provide critical services for victims of child sexual abuse and other forms of child abuse and neglect. CACs very effectively mitigate the impact of toxic stress on the developing brain, shoring up a fragile foundation and strengthening it over time. They do this by helping kids and their families navigate a complicated system of service providers and ensuring that they have access to high-quality treatment.
Navigating the system
Multiple professionals may be involved after abuse is reported: doctors, therapists, law enforcement, prosecutors, victim’s advocates, social workers, and others. Instead of expecting families to work with each of these professionals separately, CACs house a multidisciplinary team of professionals who work together to efficiently and seamlessly support the child and his or her family. Forensic exams and interviews are conducted in a child-friendly environment by professionals trained and experienced in child maltreatment and developmentally appropriate assessment techniques. Professionals staff the case together, ensuring that services are coordinated without placing the burden on the family.
People who work with children who have been abused, or who have survivors in their families, know what happens when kids don’t have access to treatment: the toxic stress that accompanies sexual abuse results in multiple long-term health consequences, and a host of social problems that present tremendous financial costs to every taxpayer in our state and country. In addition to increased physical, emotional, and behavioral health impacts, research indicates that children who experience trauma from sexual harm are at risk of being victimized again. In fact, if their trauma is left untreated, some of these children will act out their abuse and harm another child.
On the plus side, we know that treatment works! With the right intervention delivered by skilled clinicians, kids can survive traumatic experiences and become healthy, successful adults. CACs ensure that kids can access effective treatment as soon as possible, making sure that barriers such as cost and transportation don’t get in the way.
So what do CACs mean for kids? CACs eliminate duplications and make sure kids are getting the services they need, when they need them. Families are getting the support they need to heal themselves and to help their children heal. This treatment and family support has the potential to promote health and well-being, keeping traumatized kids in therapy, in school, and out of the criminal justice system.
But what about the kids in NC who don’t have access? The entire Eastern third of North Carolina, 35 counties, is served by only five accredited and two provisional centers. Some families need to drive more than two hours to reach the services their children need. Families in some parts of North Carolina don’t have any access at all.
Children’s Advocacy Centers of North Carolina (CACNC) has a goal of ensuring that each child in North Carolina has easy access to an accredited center if needed. For the first time, the General Assembly has increased the appropriation to bring center funding back to 2004 levels, on a non-recurring basis, as well as providing funding to the state office. It is our hope that state funding will be established as recurring funds at the current level for local CACs as well as CACNC.
Where a child lives in North Carolina shouldn’t determine his or her future. We know the consequences of untreated trauma and we know the positive impact of early access to treatment. By expanding services that prevent adverse experiences from becoming toxic, we can effectively change the life trajectory of children – with an impact that ripples across our communities and state.