Each year, Cuyahoga County receives approximately 50,000 calls through the Child Abuse Hotline at the Division of Child and Family Services, according to the county website. These calls report acts of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect to children throughout Northeast Ohio. Nationally, abuse affects three million children annually, and causes the death of about four children every day.
Since the mid-‘80s, major metropolitan areas throughout the US have referred those calls to their Child Advocacy Centers (CAC) that provide child-friendly, trauma-informed facilities and professionals to help abused children. The CACs are modeled after the National Children’s Advocacy Center in Huntsville, AL, founded in 1985 by then Congressman Robert E. “Bud” Cramer.
Cramer, who worked as a District Attorney in Madison County, AL, had seen the destructive effect on children when they were buffeted by an ineffective, uncoordinated pinball machine of justice and social service systems. He designed an approach that would minimize a child’s emotional distress and fear by centralizing and partnering all of the necessary services. This approach prevented children from being re-traumatized every time they had to retell what they had suffered to dozens of police, social workers, counselors, prosecutors, defense attorneys, etc.
Fortunately, in November 2018, Cuyahoga County ended its run as the last of roughly 150 major urban centers of its population size in the US without a discrete CAC by opening the Canopy Child Advocacy Center downtown.
Jennifer Johnson, LISW-S, who assumed her position as director in September 2017, says the county had gone through several false starts since the early ‘90s to open a CAC. The primary obstacle was the complex challenge of coordinating all of the partners, since Northeast Ohio boasts a rich abundance of agencies, institutions and individuals concerned with children’s welfare and protection.
“We’re blessed in that we have so many nonprofits doing so many different types of work and doing it well,” Johnson says. “We’re also blessed to have three major health systems that all serve children and provide a diverse range of specialized services, so it was difficult to find a similar model in other cities because Cuyahoga County is so unique.”
The last major attempt, she informs, began in 2014 when the United Way of Greater Cleveland approached the Domestic Violence Child Advocacy Center and asked if it would convene all of the 18 major partners in the county to plan and develop the CAC. United Way also gave a $100,000 training grant to support the initiative. The DVCAC, which had been handling prevention, response and advocacy for child abuse and domestic violence as part of its responsibilities, now serves as the fiscal agent for Canopy.
“Time and again, we’ve seen in the more than 900 CACs throughout the country that children who are treated through a CAC have a better, more holistic, less traumatizing experience of reporting their trauma,” explains Benjamin Miladin, LISW-S, director of health for the United Way. “Offenders are more likely to be held accountable when all agencies are working together to provide services.”
One of the first steps prior to opening was to prioritize who could be helped immediately. “We knew we couldn’t just open the doors to 50,000 kids, even though if we had our way we would, because we want to serve those kiddos,” Johnson says. “But we looked at where the greatest need was in Cuyahoga County, and that was children 12 and under in the city of Cleveland who were victims of alleged sexual abuse.”
In April, Canopy started taking referrals from law enforcement as well as the DFCS. Moreover, they’re now beginning to include children 12 and under from the rest of the county. To date, they’ve helped more than 400 children. By 2023, Johnson says, the goal is to treat all types of causes: sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect.
“Violence against children is shockingly common in our community,” says Kirsti Mouncey, chief program officer, Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, who serves on the CAC executive team and advisory board. “The CAC is important because it brings the key professionals together to expedite criminal investigations and child protection actions, and it links survivors to immediate specialty trauma therapy services.” CRCC has been involved since the beginning of efforts to launch a CAC, she adds, and furnishes counseling and victim advocacy to children and families.
Inside the center, Johnson carefully oversaw the comfortable, colorful and completely kid-friendly design that features whimsical drawings and artwork, playground equipment and games in one room, and toys appropriately located throughout the facility.
However, the mainstay of relief offered to children who’ve been deeply hurt and frightened is the one-time interview. The center is equipped with several pleasant, well-furnished interview rooms that feature discretely placed microphones and video cameras. Prosecutors can observe from other rooms and advise the interviewers if they are missing anything necessary. DVDs of the interviews are then made available to anyone who needs to hear the child’s account and are often employed as evidence in a trial to reduce the amount of testimony a child may need to give.
“It’s critical that children who have experienced trauma are provided with comprehensive services from a team of professionals that are sensitive to their needs,” confirms Tamara Chapman-Wagner, a deputy director with DCFS. “It is equally important that children are not re-traumatized by having to repeat their story of their abuse multiple times to different professionals.”
Next steps for Johnson and her team of partners include identifying additional sources of consistent funding so the CAC can add staff to expand its services and hours. While the greatest demand is afternoons and evenings, current staffing capabilities allow the center to be open only two nights.
Johnson is also working diligently to solidify the multidisciplinary team that comes to the center to provide all of the services needed, including child protection, victim advocacy, forensic interviews, medical examinations, mental health counseling, law enforcement, and prosecution. The partners meet and perform reviews of new and ongoing cases every two weeks, but she would like to change that to weekly in the near future.
To increase services to all 58 suburbs in Cuyahoga County, Johnson has been reaching out to each of the law enforcement jurisdictions for the past few months to explain what the CAC is and the services it provides children and families. As of mid-July, 21 jurisdictions have signed a CAC Memorandum of Understanding; her goal is to have all 58 signed by the end of 2019.
Part of the long-range plan is to have Canopy become its own 501-c-3 nonprofit entity. “That was an intentional decision by all of the partners,” affirms Melissa Graves, CEO, Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center. “That was to ensure that we maintain our mission of a collaborative model and not have any one of the partners own it as a program per se.”
At some point, as the CAC grows and expands its staff and services, it will need a larger location. For now, the sizable, newly renovated space offers an ideal setting to assist these children and families in Cuyahoga County who have needed more effective aid and support for so long.
“The CAC is leading the partner agencies toward a more modern and effective approach to addressing child trauma,” Chapman concludes. “This work will continue to expand to all victims of child abuse as it is the right way to help child victims of abuse.”