CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Child Advocacy Centers in West Virginia have served more than 3,500 children in the last year, a 50-percent increase in the last five years, according to a report released by the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network.
“I don’t think that it means there’s more child abuse in West Virginia, but rather that Child Advocacy Centers are beginning to be realized as the model that best serves children when allegations of abuse arise,” said Emily Chittenden-Laird, executive director of WVCAN.
WVCAN’s State Aggregate Data for the 2016 fiscal year showed one in every 100 children in its service area were seen by a Child Advocacy Center last year. There are currently 20 CACs in 37 of West Virginia’s 55 counties.
Nearly 70 percent of child victims served at CACs are there because of sexual abuse allegations, the report said. About 99 percent of alleged offenders were someone the child knows. A third of those alleged offenders were the child’s parent.
Chittenden-Laird said child victims used to get interviewed several times by different law enforcement officials. CACs allow for just one interview in a more comfortable environment.
“Law enforcement or Child Protective Services will call our centers and they’ll set up an initial interview and the child is brought to the Child Advocacy Center which is a very child-friendly facility,” she said. “Think of a house — something that feels very safe and comfortable for that child.”
“This model is the best way to ensure that children are served in a way that both serves their justice and helps them begin their path to healing,” she said.
The report indicates 400 cases with charges were filed and 195 people were convicted for crimes against children in the last year. Chittenden-Laird said there have been higher conviction rates because of these centers.
“We have several communities in West Virginia where there were zero felony prosecutions of child abuse over the last decade. Once the Child Advocacy Center was established, that has increased in all of those areas and we continue to see that type of growth statewide,” she said.
Chittenden-Laird said CACs are funded through federal grants, state funds, and public and private community partners. She said they hope to expand their services to all 55 counties.
Seventy-five percent of the children served by CACs were under age 13.