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November-December 2010

Family advocates in CACs

Emerging as a more common need in Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) statewide, family advocates are the liaison between the CAC staff and the victim’s family. Here’s how the Smith County CAC utilizes this valuable member of its team.

Becky Cunio

Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) of Smith County

Jason Isham

Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) of Smith County

Margaret McBride

Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) of Smith County

Children’s Advocacy Centers (CAC) were founded on the notion that child victims of crime could go to one location to receive every service they need from a multidisciplinary team (MDT) of experts. These services range from investigation (where they receive a medical evaluation and are interviewed by law enforcement and CPS), to prosecution (where the district or county attorney’s office might pursue criminal charges against the perpetrator), to healing (where a mental health professional provides counseling). What they receive depends on their county’s resources, the local CAC’s organization, and what is available through the local prosecutor’s office. In CACs throughout the state, a more and more valuable role is that of the family advocate.

The family advocate (sometimes called the FA) should be the primary contact person between the CAC team and the victim’s family. This person is a clearinghouse for information regarding the family; she shares it with all members of the MDT. This team member’s responsibilities are broad and vary between CACs but may include data collection; community presentations; general advocacy for the children and families served by the CAC; crisis intervention; facilitation of support groups; client education; medical advocacy (including accompaniment to a medical exam or sexual assault nurse exam); referrals to other social services agencies (including housing, transportation, public assistance, or domestic violence intervention); assistance in certain legal matters, such as obtaining protective orders, case updates, court accompaniment, or court orientation programming; and team facilitation and participation in MDT meetings. As you can see, this jane-of-all-trades can be an invaluable member of the CAC team.

But not all children’s advocacy centers employ family advocates. Some utilize volunteers or interns, while other centers may have a full-time position on staff. Others employ advocacy services provided by a victims’ services department affiliated with another team member’s employer (district attorney’s office, police department, or sheriff’s department.) Regardless, the family advocate should have training and experience in crisis intervention, case management, and best practices in human services.

Above all, the relationship formed between the advocate and the family is paramount. A family advocate’s primary responsibility is to follow up and serve as a safety net for families between the initial investigation and the beginning of legal proceedings. This can be a lengthy period, frequently several months to more than a year, and regular check-ins will ensure that the family has the resources they need and remains engaged in the healing and legal processes. Because the family advocate is involved from the beginning to the end of a case and establishes a relationship with the child victim and her family early on, the advocate becomes a much-needed bridge between them and the investigators and prosecution. The FA becomes familiar with the family dynamics and the challenges the family will face. Because child sexual assault cases are so destructive, the child and non-offending parent may be left without a home, insurance, transportation, or other significant necessities. Research has shown that if a child has a non-supportive caretaker, the child is more likely to recant; plus, victims and their families who have no support or community resources may move on, either emotionally (by refusing to cooperate with prosecution) or physically (by moving to another home or city without telling anyone), putting both their healing and the case at risk. The family advocate, though, can assist in finding vital resources to rebuild their lives.  

The FA and the VAC

Each community is different in how the family advocate interacts with VACs in a prosecutor’s office. If a county has both a family advocate and a VAC, the family advocate works with the victim’s family until the case is ready for prosecution, then the VAC also steps in. In some cases, both advocates work together throughout the entire process. In those counties where the VAC is unavailable or unable to provide constant personal contact, the family advocate may coordinate victim assistance throughout the prosecution. In other circumstances, the VAC may be the only advocate available to the family.

The CAC of Smith County works very closely with our local district attorney’s office and the elected Criminal District Attorney, Matt Bingham. We incorporate both the family advocate and the VAC into our program by employing an additional specialized advocate called the Kids in Court Coordinator (KIC); Becky Cunio holds this position. The KIC functions as a special legal advocate and sometimes works in coordination with the family advocate. She improves coordination and collaboration between the CAC and the DA’s office and steps into the case once the DA has made a decision regarding the perpetrator’s prosecution. Ours is one of two centers across Texas with this highly specialized role to provide both family and legal advocacy services in conjunction with the prosecutor’s VAC to multiple clients simultaneously.

Anyone’s interest in learning more about the role of a family advocate at his local CAC should talk with the executive director of the local CAC to see if this position already exists, whether formally or informally. (Maybe the center already has plans to hire a family advocate but is waiting on funding.) Prosecutors can lend advice on how to incorporate the advocates into investigations and prosecutions. Victim assistance coordinators should not feel threatened by the family advocate role—there is plenty of work for all parties involved, and the continuity of supportive advocates will result in better outcomes for crime victims and their families. In developing protocols, the CAC, VAC and prosecutors should communicate what is needed from a family advocate position and also decide who, whether the family advocate or VAC, best fits each role.

The Smith County ­example

At the CAC of Smith County, our family advocate, Margaret McBride, meets with the protective caregiver during their initial visit to the center while the child is in a forensic interview. At that time, the family advocate explains the forensic interview, various services and programs provided by the CAC, and information about possible behaviors they might expect from the child in the days and weeks ahead.

One recent case illustrates the value of family advocacy services in a trial setting. An 11-year-old child victim (we’ll call her Emmy) was sexually abused by her maternal grandfather. Emmy’s mother and father were divorced, but both attended the trial, along with her maternal grandmother, paternal grandparents, a maternal aunt, and Emmy’s siblings.

Because of her history with the family, Margaret McBride at our CAC was aware of the family’s dynamics, such as great conflict between Emmy’s parents and between her mother and grandmother. Margaret provided a significant amount of crisis intervention and de-escalated several conflicts during the week of the trial to maintain a positive environment for Emmy.

Even after she testified, she had to stay at the courthouse for four or five days until the guilt-innocence and penalty phases were over. During this time, Margaret provided age-appropriate activities, such as arts and crafts, books, movies, and games, for Emmy to pass the time, as well as drinks and snacks for the family. She also told them where to park and recommended some nearby places to eat lunch—small things, surely, but they made this difficult time easier for Emmy’s family.

The defendant had a large crowd of supporters who intimidated Emmy and her family. Margaret immediately recognized this and worked with the victim assistance coordinator in the Criminal District Attorney’s Office, Sherry Magness, to provide safe passage for the family as they entered and left the courthouse. She contacted everyone each morning before leaving for court to set up a time and place to meet so that they could be accompanied into the courthouse. During child and parent testimony, closing arguments, and sentencing, Margaret and Sherry were both present in the courtroom to provide emotional and psychological support. In the end, the defendant was found guilty of continuous sexual abuse of a child and sentenced to 50 years with no chance of parole. The family stated that the support Margaret provided and knowing that someone cared had relieved so much stress and anxiety that they couldn’t have done it without her.

Conclusion

Children’s Advocacy Centers were designed to create an effective professional network of intervention and support services for child victims of abuse and their families. Prosecutors, law enforcement, Child Protective Services (CPS), medical professionals, and mental health professionals form a core team to address the needs of these smallest of victims. However, the often overlooked role of family advocate is a worthwhile consideration for prosecutors and MDTs across the state of Texas. The family advocate is able to enrich the team’s work as they provide resources and support service that may not be captured by those other disciplines.