CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s child advocacy centers — meant to reduce stress on children who have to tell authorities about abuse in their lives — have been getting busier and busier.
Officials with the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network say that’s not because the state is experiencing more child abuse cases — but instead because word is spreading that the centers can be trusted to help children get through a painful process.
“I don’t think it’s that there’s more abuse happening,” said Emily Chittendon-Laird, executive director of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network. “I think it’s that communities are becoming more familiar with the centers.
“Children feel safe enough to discuss, and families see a response.”
West Virginia’s Child Advocacy Network includes 21 centers where juveniles may talk about abuse in a setting meant to make him or her comfortable. The children speak with a trained forensic interview.
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. That way, an abused child doesn’t have to go from agency to agency to endure multiple interviews.
This past fiscal year, the centers served 3,914 children — representing a 66 percent increase over the past five years, according to an annual statewide data report compiled by the network.
“I think the trust that child advocacy centers facilitate by having a child-friendly location and a supportive environment where hope and healing can begin really is creating a culture in West Virginia where kids are more OK to talk about some really hard stuff that’s happened to them,” said Chittendon-Laird.
The centers are funded by a mix of federal and state funding and donations.
Many of the children who are served by the centers are particularly vulnerable. Thirty-four percent of the children served by the centers were under the age of 6, and 19 percent are reported or suspected to have a disability.
Most of the children — 62 percent — were at the centers because of allegations of sexual abuse.
Forty percent of alleged offenders were the child’s parent. Ninety-nine percent of the alleged offenders were someone the child knows.
There were 548 cases with charges filed, and 242 individuals convicted for crimes against children.