BECKLEY, W.Va. — Just for Kids Child Advocacy Center, Inc., a non-profit advocacy group for children in three West Virginia counties, has been recognized by the state’s Child Advocacy Network for its ongoing efforts to provide services to children who have suffered physical and emotional abuse, often as a result of the worsening illegal drug crisis in southern West Virginia.
Just for Kids Executive Director Scott Miller this month received the “One With Courage Award,” which is awarded to those who have made significant contributions to the development, continuation, or enhancement of the child advocacy center model in West Virginia.
Miller told MetroNews affiliate WJLS-AM there has been a notable shift in the judicial approach to cases of child abuse in the state since the formation of Just for Kids and of other organizations that are part of the statewide advocacy network.
“Just for Kids started in Fayette County, moved quickly into Raleigh County, and about 10 years ago, we started working in Wyoming County. And, in the 10 years prior to us starting there, there had not been one case of child abuse that went to court. And now, we are interviewing 60 to 100 kids a year, and 15 or 20 cases are going to court, every year,” he said.
According to Miller, the increasing involvement of the judiciary in allegations of child abuse has been facilitated largely by a change in the perception of children as credible witnesses to the circumstances in which they have been abused.
“Oftentimes, cases just linger, don’t go to trial because (investigators) feel like a child really can’t speak up for themselves,” said Miller. “We work as a team with local law enforcement, with state police, Child Protective Services, and the prosecutor’s office. When they get a call in a child abuse case — and, primarily child sexual abuse — they call us, and the child and their non-offending family member comes to one of our three offices. It’s a child-friendly space, and that’s a really important piece for children. Our main job is to reduce trauma for a child who is going through this very traumatic experience. We have three trained forensic interviewers who have a one-on-one discussion with the child. Its videotaped and closed-circuited into an observation room, where law enforcement and CPS can be watching, directly, that interview, but it’s not six people hovered around a child.”
Through his experiences observing and interacting with law enforcement, Miller said he became increasingly aware of the need for an approach to criminal investigation of child abuse cases that more directly involves the assistance of child advocates with specialized training.
“When I started 10 years ago, I watched a video of, first, a trained police officer interviewing a child and, the next day, a trained forensic interviewer from a child advocacy center interviewing the same child, and the difference was night and day. Not that the police officer wasn’t doing his job well, but his training didn’t give him the expertise around how to really talk to a child. Of course, police officers are trained to interact with adults,” he explained. “Our interviewers, because they are hearing so many of these stories, can tell if there’s something up, if the child’s been coached.”
In addition to his ongoing work with Just for Kids, Miller has served in a variety of capacities at the state level, including as a past member of the WVCAN board of directors, and on several committees, to guide the establishment and improvement of services to help child victims of abuse and their families.
Just for Kids will hold a benefit banquet, the “2019 Champions of Children Recognition Dinner,” at the Pavilion at Glade Springs Resort in Daniels April 26. The event will honor two members of the Fayette County Women’s Resource Center who have collaborated with Just for Kids to protect children living in homes affected by domestic violence, a member of the Raleigh County Sheriff’s Department who works with Child Protective Services as a member of the Multi-Disciplinary Investigative Team, and a childhood survivor of abuse who since has become an adult advocate and mentor for abused children.
Tickets for the banquet and information about sponsorships are available at www.jfkwv.com