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What is a Children’s Advocacy Center?

A Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) is a community-based, child-focused facility where children alleged to be victims of abuse or neglect are interviewed and receive medical exams, therapy, and other critical services in a non-threatening and child friendly environment.  A CAC brings together representatives from many disciplines to meet and discuss and make decisions about investigations, treatment and prosecution of child abuse cases.  The primary goal of a CAC is to reduce the additional trauma experienced by child victims, improve prosecutions and provide for more prompt and thorough provision of necessary services to the child victim and the child’s family.  CACs reduce the duplication of services through their inter-agency collaboration and coordination.

The services provided by a Children’s Advocacy Center include, but are not limited to, the following services:

  • Forensic interviews conducted in a neutral, fact-finding nature and coordinated to avoid duplicative interviewing;
  • Crisis intervention and emotional support for victims and non-offending family members;
  • Counseling and medical services to help victims and non-offending family members to heal from the emotional wounds associated with child abuse;
  • Medical evaluations;
  • Multidisciplinary review of cases by a team of professionals, including, but not limited to, law enforcement, child protection teams, prosecutors, medical professionals, mental health professionals, victim assistance staff and child advocates;
  • Evidence-based prevention and intervention programs to reduce the likelihood of child maltreatment and to provide safe and caring homes for children; and
  • Professional training and community education to effectively respond to child abuse.
History of child advocacy centers

In 1985, Congressman Robert E. “Bud” Cramer (AL), who was then a District Attorney, organized an effort to create a better system to help abused children. He was frustrated as a prosecutor, because he was having difficulty prosecuting child abuse cases and getting guilty verdicts or pleas for offenders of crimes against children. He noticed the social service and the criminal justice systems were not working together in an effective manner and this created the common problem of adding to children’s emotional distress, and created a segmented, repetitious, and often frightening experience for the child victims. He pulled together law enforcement, criminal justice, child protective service, medical and mental health workers into one coordinated team that would serve child victims of crime in a respectful way. Thirty years ago, this was a revolutionary idea.

Impact of Children’s Advocacy Centers on Child Abuse and Neglect

In 2006, researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire released findings from the five-year multi-site national evaluation of the CAC model. Data from over 1,000 cases of sexual abuse handled by communities with and without a CAC were collected and subject to comparison analysis. Some highlights of the findings include:

  • CACs showed significantly more evidence of coordinated investigations.
  • More children involved with a CAC received a specialized medical evaluation.
  • More children involved in a CAC were referred to mental health services.
  • Parents and caregivers of children served by CACs were more satisfied with the investigation (than those  in comparison sample).

Cross, T.P., Jones, L.M., Walsh, W.A., Simone, M., Kolko, D.J., Szczepanski, J., Lippert, T., Davison, K., Cryns, A., Sosnowski, P., Shadoin, A., and Magnuson, S. (2008), Evaluating children’s advocacy centers’ response to child sexual abuse. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, 1-12.

In 2005, the National Children’s Advocacy Center in Huntsville,  Alabama conducted a national cost-benefit analysis of the Children’s Advocacy Center model showing that Children’s Advocacy Centers save approximately $1,000 per case in services to children and families during the course of a child abuse investigation.  On a per-case basis, traditional investigations were 36% more expensive than a CAC investigation. The cost of a Children’s Advocacy Center investigation averaged $2,902 compared to $3,949 for a traditional abuse investigation.

For more information, please read the Executive Summary of Findings from the NCAC Cost-Benefit Analysis of Community Responses to Child Maltreatment.  To read the full study, please click here.