CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Division of Juvenile Services has reached an agreement with the state’s child advocacy centers to make incarcerated youths who are reporting or dealing with a sexual assault feel more comfortable telling what happened.
The partnership is a step toward bringing West Virginia into compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.
“It’s clear to me that the Division of Juvenile Services isn’t just trying to reach compliance,” said Emily Chittendon-Laird, executive director of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Center, meaning that she believes the agency has taken an interest in going above and beyond what’s expected.
West Virginia’s Child Advocacy Network includes 20 centers where juveniles may talk about abuse in a setting meant to make him or her comfortable. This is meant to prevent making a child repeat the story to a series of investigators and officials. The centers coordinate with other institutions such as police, prosecutors and Child Protective Services.
“Prior to having child advocacy centes in our state, they would have to tell 7,8, 9 people who were interviewing them the same allegation,” Chittendon-Laird said. “It created all kinds or problems.
“CACs are designed to flip that on its head and create a response leading to safety and hope and justice. The systems all come together around a child, and the child comes to a child advocacy center.”
The Division of Juvenile Services was working on its compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, particularly requirements to provide outside services in the event of sexual assault. That led the agency to the Child Advocacy Network.
“We just kind of clicked and have been working well together,” said Tim Harper, director of investigations for the Division of Juvenile Services. “They’re experts in that area, so we were more than happy to partner up with them.”
Chittendon-Laird appreciates that the government agency came looking for help.
“I love that DJS approached us and it wasn’t the other way around,” Chittendon-Laird said. “They came to us because they knew they had to have a better approach. I love that there was this early, shared vision that kids who are in DJS facilities need to be moved toward healing and readiness to be moved back into society.”
From introduction to hammering out an official partnership took about a year and a half. At the end of September, the two organizations formalized their relationship.
“If a child makes any type of disclosure now, with this memorandum in place, the DJS facility will make a report but will additionally call the child advocacy center, who will coordinate the various investigative parties,” Chittendon-Laird said.
The two organizations had to work through some areas of different rules and cultures. For example, Chittendon-Laird said the Division of Juvenile Services transports its incarcerated residents in shackles.
“Yet when we’re talking to a child about the possibility they’ve been abused or raped, we want to make this as human an experience as possible,” Chittendon-Laird said. “Let’s find a place for that child to change in a bathroom, take them out of their shackles so they can have the same experience as any victim of a sexual assault will have.”
The child advocacy centers also aim to make sure medical evaluations or trauma therapy are available.
“They’re still children in our community,” Chittendon-Laird said. “Just because they’re in a DJS facility doesn’t mean they don’t need the same services any child would need.”