How Children's Advocacy Centers help reduce trauma for child abuse victims

Brightly colored furniture. Toys and games. A support dog. A healing garden.

The Children's Advocacy Centers in the Chicago suburbs are a stark contrast to the typical interview room in a police station.

That's because they're designed to make the most vulnerable crime victims feel safe and supported.

For children believed to have been sexually or physically abused, the healing process often begins at their local CACs.

A case starts with a referral from law enforcement officers or the Department of Children and Family Services, at which point the child is brought to the CAC by a caregiver or another non-offending adult, according to the Children's Advocacy Centers of Illinois.

A trained professional conducts a forensic interview while a multidisciplinary team observes in a separate room. The group includes medical and mental health professionals, police, prosecutors, victim advocates and child protective services officials, who investigate and decide together how to best help the child and his or her family.

Without this process, child abuse victims would have to repeat their story to several people during an investigation, potentially worsening their trauma, said Misty Marinier, executive director of the McHenry County center. At a CAC, the child talks to only one specialized staff member who knows the right questions to ask.

"We build rapport, talk to the child, get to know them, make them comfortable," Marinier said.

The agencies see children up to 18 years old, as well as adults with developmental disabilities.

CACs vary from county to county. The Lake, DuPage and Kane county chapters, for example, are under the umbrella of their state's attorney's offices. Some also have separate fundraising arms.

The McHenry and Cook county chapters operate as independent nonprofits.

But their methods and goals remain the same: to reduce trauma for children who have been sexually abused, physically abused, or are witnesses or victims of other violent crimes.

CACs offer therapy and medical exams, and often have linkage agreements with other local service providers. They offer case management and help families through the court process.

In some cases, a child will have to be immediately removed from family members after an interview. That's why the McHenry County CAC has clothes, toiletries and pillows on hand, Marinier said.

In other situations, CAC staff members will receive a late-night phone call from the emergency room, or from a police officer responding to a child's home.

"We'll open at any time to make sure the child's safe," Marinier said. "We will cover a case from the time that we get that report until the very end."

CACs have implemented various tactics for making a child feel comfortable when they enter their facilities.

Lake County started the concept 35 years ago in a Waukegan house in hopes of creating a more kid-friendly environment than a police station, State's Attorney Michael Nerheim said. Now, the center is in a recently renovated space in Gurnee, with multiple interview rooms, a comfortable waiting area, a new healing garden and plans to create an on-site medical exam room.

The McHenry County chapter designed its waiting room in Woodstock to look like a living room, complete with couches and toys. The Kane County center is in a quaint house in Geneva so kids aren't afraid to enter.

Both the McHenry and Lake agencies also have support dogs to help children feel more at ease.

There was a time when CACs were hidden entities, local leaders say. Nobody wanted to talk about child abuse, especially not sexual abuse. But over time, educational campaigns, public movements and mandatory reporting laws have brought the issue to the forefront.

"A lot of what we're trying to do is raise awareness in the community and let them know we're here," Nerheim said. "As many cases as we see, this is the most underreported crime there is, and it's underreported because kids are scared.

"We think the more the public knows (about us), people who might kind of be on edge might be more willing to come forward."

  Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim shows off one of four interview rooms in the Children's Advocacy Center. The organization aims to help victims of child sexual and physical abuse, among other violent crimes. Mark Welsh/
  The waiting room in the Child Advocacy Center of McHenry County is designed to look like a living room to make children more comfortable, Executive Director Misty Marinier says. John Starks/
  A two-way mirror is used to observe forensic interviews conducted at the Child Advocacy Center of McHenry County in Woodstock. John Starks/
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