It all started with a prosecutor.
Bud Cramer, former prosecutor and Alabama Congressman, pioneered the first children’s advocacy center (CAC) in 1985. Today, there are 800 CACs in the United States and many more across the globe. Texas is the proud home of 71, the largest number of CACs in any state.
As the oldest CACs in Texas begin to turn 30, we are contemplating the longevity of our movement. Starting that conversation with the profession that helped start it all, prosecutors, seems like the natural step. To be direct, we are coming to you asking for support for a core piece of CACs’ long-term strategic plan: sustainability.
This year, CACs in Texas will partner with more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies, 230 district and county attorney’s offices, every Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) region, every children’s hospital, and countless medical and mental health providers. Our network of 71 CACs, which officially serve 201 counties, are on track to serve over 52,000 children. That is 52,000 children who will benefit from the promise an MDT (multidisciplinary team) approach seeks to deliver—restoration.
The definition of restoration is to return something to a former condition. What a powerful aspiration in the context of crimes against children! To think that we might be able to set a child’s life back on the unmarred trajectory upon which they were born—one full of hope, possibility, and promise—before someone decided to subvert it through their actions. We believe restoration is achievable when three equally significant components are delivered: safety, justice, and healing.
That was Bud Cramer’s vision, that the various state, county, municipal, and private entities, both civil and criminal, that intersect in a case with a child victim would work in collaboration. By doing so, Cramer accurately hypothesized that each entity would not only achieve its individual mandate more successfully, but would also work in contemplation of one another to ensure that each of the collective components of restoration are achieved. This collaboration, known formally as an MDT, is housed under the umbrella of a neutral, nonprofit entity, known to each of you as a CAC.
As every reader of this journal knows, the goals and aspirations outlined above are much more marathon than sprint. In the fight to protect and bring justice to child victims and ultimately deliver restoration, endurance is required. We believe the answers to our quest for longevity are within the answers to the below questions, and we openly request your participation in dialogue as we seek the answers.
• How do we protect the contours of our model, which were so artfully designed through the lenses of prosecutors, detectives, and caseworkers while also balancing the desire to advance our work? How does this inform our response to external requests to take on new initiatives that push on those contours?
• How do we ensure our relevance and value with our partner agencies?
• How do we better support our partner agencies when they are faced with limited resources?
• How do we work in contemplation of new requirements and considerations that bear down on the partner agencies we work to support?
• How do we articulate and communicate the “why” behind our model to new generations of prosecutors, detectives, and caseworkers so that they reap its benefits?
As we pondered these questions, two themes became apparent. We must revive our roots to ensure relevance and value, and we must advance and evolve while protecting the architecture of our model, carefully crafted by the hands of prosecutors, throughout that journey.
Reviving our roots
While CACs are often known as service providers delivering a host of investigative, case management, and healing services, the facilitation and coordination of the MDT is the heart and soul of the CAC model. Yes, CACs provide forensic interviews. Yes, CACs have facilities that are welcoming for families. Yes, CACs provide breakfast tacos and other tasty treats at meetings. CACs have become buildings where child abuse professionals go to get services.
However, the cornerstone of the model that Bud Cramer laid out was to have a neutral party bring together the various disciplines that impact a child who has been abused to harmonize their work, as dictated by the participant-driven protocols. This allows each entity to stay focused on the nuances and critical work of its agency while sleeping well at the end of the day knowing that the restoration equation is being calculated. Quite simply, Cramer’s work was a bold statement about the humanity of each professional working in this field—that as a professional, each is charged with seeking either safety, justice, and healing, and as humans we care about all three.
To survive and thrive, we must collectively put the MDT component front and center for the next generation. Here are ways prosecutors can help:
1. Champion the CAC MDT approach. As a prosecutor, you want as much information as you can get to help make your case. The MDT approach, if worked effectively, gets you the totality of the information that can be collected through diversity of perspective, approach, expertise, and opinion. Prosecutors are MDT leaders, and when your offices are engaged and championing the MDT response, it deepens and enriches the participation of other child abuse professionals. This includes advocating that the entire MDT response is important and necessary for successful outcomes. The forensic interview is only a piece of the MDT response. Coordinated investigations, medical evaluations, case reviews, family advocacy, and healing services are also key to making the best possible case for you and putting a child back on the path to restoration.
2. Engage in the CAC’s MDT working protocol review and revision process. This document contains the rules that govern the MDT response. It outlines case criteria, roles of each partner agency, and protocols for investigative coordination and service provision. MDT working protocols have received more attention recently due to the passage of Senate Bill 1806 by the 85th Texas Legislature, which created a new statutory mandate to reinforce the importance of the MDT response outlined in the MDT working protocols.
3. Actively participate in CAC MDT case review meetings. These meetings should be an important opportunity for the MDT to discuss cases, share and hear all perspectives, and make the best decisions for children and cases. If you are not seeing value in these meetings, let the CAC leadership know and work with them to fix what might be broken.
Protecting the CAC model
To achieve the goals above, the CAC model, unlike any other nonprofit victim service agency, has been invited into the criminal justice and civil systems by the MDT partners entrusted with seeking justice and safety. This hardwiring of CACs into the criminal justice and civil systems necessitates that our actions, operations, culture, and record keeping practices contemplate the highly sensitive, high stakes work of our partner agencies, namely prosecution, law enforcement, and DFPS. Our unique positioning within these systems must inform how our programs operate if we are to remain relevant and effective.
To do this accurately and fully, CACs need the input of representatives of these systems. State statute emphasizes this by statutorily requiring the signature of partner agencies on the CAC memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the CAC to exist and by including a requirement that representatives from each discipline have a seat on CAC governing boards.
Here are ways prosecutors can help protect the integrity of the CAC model:
1. Actively participate on the CAC Board of Directors. The Texas Legislature recognized that it was a groundbreaking concept to let a nonprofit in on the front end of investigations for some of the most serious crimes in the Penal Code. It was therefore important to put into statute that the agencies charged with these investigations should also have a role in the governance of CACs, which ensures that the decisions contemplate the impact on prosecution, law enforcement, and DFPS.
2. Know and understand what records the CAC retains. While the CAC record that most think about is the actual forensic interview recording, prosecutors should be aware of other records the CAC keeps and be well-versed in statutory protections and considerations surrounding these records, including Family Code §264.408 and Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 39.14.
3. Understand the contours of the CAC model and advocate for their protection. Use your voice on the MDT and CAC Board of Directors when either are asked to take on new programs that could require modifications to the intended operation, purpose, membership, or working protocols of the MDT. Modifications have the potential to dilute and/or detract from the purpose of the CAC model and must be met with careful and intentional consideration to ensure fidelity and efficacy, and thereby our longevity.
4. Actively lend the credibility of your voice to the promotion of the CAC MDT to external audiences. Decision-makers and community leaders hold prosecutors in high regard. There is no substitute for the validation your voice gives to this approach when resources and policy decisions are made. It has unquestionably come to our aid during numerous turning points in our 30-year history. If you feel deep value to your work with the CAC MDT, please continue to advocate and share that experience.
There is little about our model and movement that doesn’t have the fingerprints of prosecutorial legends and giants on it. It is undeniable how we have benefitted from that guidance in Texas. Our state leads the nation in this movement and always has. We intend to set the pace for the next 30 years and know we can do it by taking a page from our foundational days—working hand-in-hand with the partner agencies that breathe wisdom, credibility, and heart into our model.