- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Nan W. Leininger, president of the board of directors of Child Protection Resource Center of Virginia Inc.

Question: How did your group begin?

Answer: I was working on my master’s in social work, and part of the program required students [to] participate in an internship. I interned at the National Children’s Alliance in the District, and that’s where I learned about Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs).

My supervisor, Jenna Mehnert, and I did a lot of outreach in Virginia communities because there was only one fully established Children’s Advocacy Center in Bristol, Virginia, at the time.

So, after I graduated in May 2002, Jenna Mehnert and I got together with professionals across the state and helped launch Children’s Advocacy Centers of Virginia. But we still saw the need for a statewide agency that would concentrate on advocacy and provide technical assistance and other resources, such as a Web site, so we formed Child Protection Resource Center of Virginia. The two of us were in a position to accomplish a lot and felt compelled to do it.

Q: Is child sexual abuse a problem in Virginia?

A: Yes, it is. The FBI estimates that one in seven boys and one in four girls will experience sexual abuse during their childhood, and child abuse is widely considered one of the most underreported crimes. The problem arises when we have a report of abuse and authorities begin to investigate.

Traditionally, Child Protective Services talks to the child and the family. Then law enforcement has to talk with the child. The commonwealth’s attorney has to talk with the child if the case is going forward. There may be a need for a medical examination, and mental health therapy may be recommended. Now what happens — all of these people keep asking the child the same questions over and over again.

It’s always hard for anyone to talk about such a highly emotional issue, even more so for a child.

… Several things can happen as a result of the repetitive questioning: One, the child is revictimized by having to relive the experience; two, they are unlikely to say the same thing over and over again; and three, the child thinks no one believes them.

Q: How do Children’s Advocacy Centers help abused children?

A: We bring all of the appropriate professionals together under one roof and the child can tell their story one time. The child is interviewed by one trained forensic interviewer, and the rest of the multidisciplinary team observes through one-way glass or over closed-circuit TV.

There is a mechanism in place so the team can ask the interviewer questions or ask for clarification. It’s still an interactive process, but the child is spared duplicate interviews and is fully aware the team will be observing.

And the moment the child walks in the door, everything in the environment is designed with the child in mind, so they feel physically and psychologically safe. They realize they can’t be the only child this has happened to, which most tend to believe because there is this entire building and all of these adults working with children.

Q: How does your group help those who want to help abused children?

A: What usually happens is that someone will contact us through our Web site, asking for information on how to establish a Children’s Advocacy Center — it could be an organization such as Greater Richmond SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now) or a concerned parent, citizen, or policeman — anyone who is involved in the child-protection system.

We will immediately respond to their request for information and will visit their community, if asked, and give a presentation. We also provide information to individuals and agencies who want to change the legislation around the child-abuse code. I’ve given presentations before the Virginia Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and before professional social workers, students and faculty at George Mason University.

During the presentations, I give the history of Children’s Advocacy Centers, a description of a multidisciplinary team and how it works when dealing with children.

I emphasize that if a community uses the multidisciplinary team approach what wonderful things can be accomplished for both the abused children and their families, even if [the community does] not have the resources necessary to establish a full Children’s Advocacy Center.

Q: How many Children’s Advocacy Centers are in this area?

A:Well, Child Help USA has opened a Children’s Advocacy Center in Fairfax County. There is one in the District called Safe Shores, with a nautical theme throughout, and Arlington is in the process of developing one. I know there are several located in Maryland.

Q: What does your organization need at this time?

A: A real office somewhere would be fantastic. Currently, we operate out of a basement office in a private home. An LCD projector would be nice for doing Power Point presentations in other communities. And donations would be greatly appreciated since we pay out-of-pocket for all of our expenses.

Also, there’s a project we started that we would like to see completed — an eight- to 10-minute introductory video on Children’s Advocacy Centers. Our concept is to film it from the child’s perspective — going to government office buildings, police stations, emergency rooms. And then film the contrast of what it’s like in a child-friendly environment.

We started the project in March 2003, but it has just kind of stalled. Our hope is to distribute the video across the commonwealth because that would be a way to get the point across and show the advantages of Children’s Advocacy Centers from a child’s perspective.

April is Stop Child Abuse month and Virginia is launching a blue-ribbon campaign and asking that people wear a dark blue ribbon to show support in stopping child abuse.

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