The grandparents of two sisters in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, were concerned about the conditions at their daughter’s house and were suspicious of the mother’s boyfriend. One day, the grandmother asked about him. When the 4-year-old accidentally disclosed sexual abuse, the 6-year-old covered her sister’s mouth and said it was supposed to be a secret. That’s when authorities were called to intervene and contacted Child’s Voice, a child advocacy center supported by Sanford Health and serving the Sioux Falls region.
“Child advocacy centers provide a comprehensive evaluation of a child suspected of being abused or neglected in a way that is least traumatic for the child,” said Connie Schmidt, Child’s Voice director. Child’s Voice is a community partnership funded through grants, donations and third-party payers and brings together a comprehensive multidisciplinary team consisting of social services, law enforcement, victim advocacy and health care professionals. This team collaboration allows a child to tell his or her story one time.
“In the past, people kept talking repeatedly to children which often led to poor information,” said Dr. Nancy Free Child’s Voice medical director. “Sometimes it was just plain traumatizing to a child to have to tell his or her story over and over again.”
1/4 girls and 1/6 boys
Statistics show 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Child’s Voice served more than 1,200 children suspected of abuse or neglect in 2012, and has seen an increase of 10 percent each of the last five years, Schmidt said.
In this case, the Division of Child Protection from the South Dakota Department of Social Services consulted the mother and questioned her ability to protect her children. Their initial task was the placement of the children to ensure their safety while following-up with the law enforcement investigation.
Colleen Brazil, Child’s Voice forensic interviewer, talked to the sisters.
“The interviews are vital for the authorities so we make sure we are doing it in a reliable way, but also gathering information that they need,” Brazil said.
The forensic interview was observed by law enforcement and child protective services personnel to avoid the sisters having multiple interviews by multiple investigative agencies.
Child’s Voice mission
The primary mission of Child’s Voice is to provide comprehensive medical services to children who may have suffered various forms of child abuse. Dr. Free performed a medical exam to determine any physical, emotional and psychosocial implications and to ensure the children’s health and well-being. The mother and daughters received therapy referrals to facilitate healing and lessen the long term impact of the abuse.
Sioux Falls Police Department arrested the abuser and assisted the state’s attorney’s office in filing sexual abuse charges. He was ultimately sentenced to 80 years in prison.
“This is a tough situation for families,” Dr. Free said. “Certainly some parents may show disbelief when they are first confronted because, if you care for someone, you would hope that person wouldn’t be capable of doing something bad to your children.”
Schmidt said this child advocacy center utilizes a medical model in which the forensic interview, medical evaluation, family conference and crisis counseling/advocacy are provided during one visit to Child’s Voice. The office is located at the Sanford USD Medical Center and provides services without cost to the family, thanks in part to generous donors.
“Donors are important because these families are in crisis. Financial status should not prevent a child from receiving our comprehensive services.” Schmidt said. “Without Child’s Voice, some of these children may never disclose their abuse.”
Another way Child’s Voice makes a difference is by providing educational programs in the Sioux Falls region, such as The Period of Purple Crying. Infant crying has been shown to be the most common trigger for caregivers to become frustrated and shake an infant. This prevention program helps parents and caregivers understand why and how to respond to a newborn’s crying which may intensify between 2 weeks and the fourth or fifth month of life. Child’s Voice provides a booklet and DVD which is given to parents after a baby is born at The Birth Place.