A system for investigating child abuse that minimizes trauma for victims and makes sure they get medical and mental health services is winning praise in Waterville and Lewiston and is now due to expand to other parts of Maine just as state officials report a jump in child abuse in Maine.

Children’s Advocacy Centers are designed to bring together law enforcement, prosecutors, crisis workers, social workers and medical personnel to conduct coordinated investigations and treatment for a victim of child sexual or physical abuse. The centers employ a forensic interviewer who conducts a comprehensive recorded interview that can later be used by authorities so that a young victim is not subjected to repeated interviews.

“Children’s Advocacy Centers are well regarded and are perhaps the most significant law enforcement innovation in the child maltreatment area over the last generation,” said David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. New Hampshire has now instituted them in all counties.

Besides being painful, multiple interviews can actually complicate prosecutions because changes in a victim’s story can be exploited by a perpetrator.

Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said she can remember growing up the child of two child protective workers in Maine and hearing her parents lament the need to subject children who were victims of assault to multiple interviews.

‘MOST PAINFUL EVENT’

“They’re talking about the most painful event of their lives,” sexual abuse or severe physical abuse, Maloney said.

The recorded interviews also are shared with the accused’s attorney, and while they don’t eliminate the need for children to testify in criminal trials, they often can persuade defendants to plead guilty without going through a trial, Maloney said.

Maine’s embrace of the Children’s Advocacy Center approach comes at a time when the state has seen an increase in both physical and sexual abuse of children.

Confirmed cases of sexual abuse rose from 208 cases in 2011 to 271 cases in 2012, a 30 percent increase, while nationally, sexual abuse of children climbed 2 percent, according to the most recent figures available. Maine’s number dropped to 239 last year, still 15 percent higher than it was in 2011, according to figures provided by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The growth in physical abuse has been even more stark. Confirmed physical abuse cases against children grew from 563 in 2011 to 807 in 2012, a 30 percent increase, while nationally the rate rose 5 percent. The number of cases in Maine jumped another 10 percent by 2013 to 891 cases. National figures for 2013 are not yet available.

CHILD-FRIENDLY, NOT SCARY

The centers in Maine consist of an office with an interview room, equipped with cameras for recording the interview, and offices for victims and family members to meet with different agencies. Each is staffed by a full-time forensic interviewer and a part-time advocate for victims and non-offending family members.

“The setting is really set up to be child-friendly and not scary. It’s a very cozy room with toys, that sort of thing,” said Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, who sponsored the bill that codified the centers in Maine law and was among a delegation of legislators who visited the Lewiston center in the spring.

There are roughly 800 Children’s Advocacy Centers across the country.

“What happened prior to there being children advocacy center(s) is each agency would do parallel investigations,” said Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, which certifies that the centers are meeting established standards. “Kids would be retraumatized, and getting real gaps in services and being sort of subjected to the same questioning over and over and over which could legally compromise the case.”

The model has been slow to blossom in Maine. The first center opened in Waterville in February 2012, serving Kennebec and Somerset counties. It was recently accredited by the National Children’s Alliance. The center in Lewiston originally opened in 2003 but was underutilized for several years until a trained forensic interviewer was on staff. Use of the center started increasing in 2009, and in 2013 it conducted 170 child victim interviews, said Elizabeth Ward Saxl, executive director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. The Androscoggin Children’s Advocacy Center applied for accreditation in March and is in the process of being evaluated.

FOCUS ON SEXUAL ASSAULT

Therese Cahill-Low, director of the Maine Office of Child and Family Services, said the approach did not get support in previous administrations, but now the LePage administration has directed $75,000 in state resources to help support the program as Maine tries to expand it to Portland and Bangor and eventually to all nine human services districts.

“I think it’s a fabulous approach – collaboration with law enforcement and the district attorney’s office, guardians ad litem, as well as our staff, who can sit there and watch the interview,” Cahill-Low said. The interviews are conducted by interviewers trained to deal with child victims. The different agencies can have an interviewer ask questions specific to their services.

The Maine centers have focused primarily on sexual assault and have been bolstered by advocates for victims of such assault.

“They focus on children who have been sexually abused,” Craven said. “It often happens within families and they have a lot of control over the child. It makes it very difficult for the child to tell somebody,” she said.

In 2013, Maine’s two centers served 385 children and have served 242 through half of 2014, said Saxl. Cases are referred by police, prosecutors and the state child welfare advocates.

“Sexual abuse cases tend to be among the more complicated both to investigate and prove, so they warranted some special attention,” Saxl said. She said several other communities are interested in starting the centers, but they need to have enough community support to be sustainable, she said.

DECREASED TRAUMA

Saxl said the centers do cost money, but studies have shown the cost of investigations are 36 percent less than without them.

“For the decreased trauma for kids who have experienced sexual violence, these child-friendly, single interviews make all the difference,” Saxl said.

The legislation recognizing the centers and pushing for their expansion won bipartisan support last year and was signed by Gov. Paul LePage. It also calls for expanding their focus to include physical abuse as well as sexual abuse. The Department of Health and Human Services was instructed to report back to the Legislature by January on its progress.

Craven said she sponsored the bill at the request of Auburn Police Chief Phillip Crowell.

Crowell testified before legislators as the bill was being considered, saying that children are often shuttled between law enforcement, social service and medical agencies and revictimized each time they are interviewed. “The lack of a multi-disciplinary approach to providing services to victims of such horrific trauma ensures that our most vulnerable children will continue to be revictimized by the abusers who would exploit them,” he said at the time.

Finkelhor, of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, said with or without the centers, prosecutors need to work at getting child maltreatment cases resolved more rapidly. The cases typically take one to two years to reach a conclusion and research shows children recover better if they are resolved sooner, he said.

A study of the centers’ effectiveness found they provide better access to medical exams and more involvement by police in sexual abuse investigations than other approaches but were comparable at delivering mental health services and with the results of prosecutions, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center.