The theme for this year's Crime Victim Rights Week is "Victim Rights: Every Victim. Every Time." It serves as a reminder to us all to advance the rights of victims and expand the services they need to rebuild their lives. It envisions a world in which all victims receive the support they need to recover from the aftermath of violence.
This initiative is especially important for our most vulnerable victims: children. For this issue of our Enewsletter, we asked children's advocates to give us their thoughts. What is it that drew them to helping victims and what is it that enables them to continue their important work? These insights can help all of us who are dedicated to serving victims.
The Seagoville Police Department contacted our office on behalf of a 13-year-old girl who had been assaulted while on a trip to Florida. Getting help for this young girl required the police department, the sexual assault advocate from Victims Outreach in Dallas, the Violence Intervention and Prevention Center at Parkland Hospital, and our compensation program to work closely together. Thanks to their commitment, this precious child received the help she needed.
This is but one incident among thousands that each of you experience every day. Your commitment, compassion, and willingness to work together gives true meaning to our vision of rebuilding lives and providing every victim with his or her rights every time.
Attorney General of Texas
Just the other day someone asked me, as they often do, how and why I continue to work in the child abuse field. "It must be so depressing to hear all those awful stories about what happens to kids," they said. This time I immediately thought of a photograph I'd received in the mail a week or so earlier. The photo was that of a young mother with three beautiful young children - two girls, ages 6 and 4, and a newborn baby boy. The mom was beaming. The dad was apparently the one taking the photo. Everyone was laughing. The background was a small but homey living room.
I have never met the children in the photo in person, but I knew the young mother, and the tiny faces reminded me of when I first met her. It was more than a decade ago, and she had just turned 12. Back then she was defiant, angry, and despite her valiant attempts to hide it, scared to death. The allegations - something she'd reportedly shared with a 7th grade classmate - were that her step-father was molesting her, and has been doing so since she was 8. She was the 10th child who had come to our local children's advocacy center (CAC) back in 1992. Since then there have been thousands more.
Not wanting to disclose her real name, I'll call her Sharon. She is a special and unique young woman, but her story is not unique at all.
She was learning-disabled and the daughter of a frightened, overly medicated, submissive and dependent mother. Her stepfather was a monster. He used her to fulfill his own sexual fantasies and then permitted his teenage sons to do the same. When she tried to talk to her mother about what was happening, her mother would threaten to kill herself. Sharon would then back off her allegations, saying she had made it all up. And so, for years, she endured horrific things, believing she was simply not worthy of better treatment, that somehow this was what she should expect in life.
But, as she tells me today, once she came to the CAC, things began to look different in her eyes. She suddenly knew she was not the only kid who had endured this nightmare. She wasn’t sure she was ready to tell the police what had happened or to have her step-father and her step-brothers put in jail. But she was ready to stand up and say this would NEVER happen to her again.
Today when Sharon calls to tell me, one of the professionals who held her hand and talked to her at the children's advocacy center back in 1992, what costumes her children are wearing for Halloween this year or which one has lost a tooth, she's also quick to remind me that - but for the people at the CAC who helped her - she would never be the mother she is today. She often says that was the worst time of her life but also the best, because it was the first time in her young life that anyone cared what she said or what she felt or what she needed. Suddenly, she recalls, she felt worthy and important and valued. Suddenly she felt her life did, indeed, hold the promise of a happy future.
Sharon had made allegations and recanted them repeatedly over the two year period the investigation of her case went on. There never was a criminal or civil prosecution of her stepfather or stepbrothers. In some ways the system failed her - as it has so many child victims of abuse. However, the children’s advocacy center had somehow empowered her to believe in and protect herself.
She grew up to be a healthy, protective and powerful mother who would ensure there would be no cycle of abuse for her children. She had felt the support of people who believed in her and who would support her if and when she could tell what had happened and even when she could not.
The note - scribbled in the Sharon's still-child-like handwriting and accompanying the photo of her beautiful family - said, "If you weren't there for me back then I could never be here for my kids now. Thank you. I love you."
Why do I, like countless other professionals involved in the children's advocacy center movement in Texas, continue to work in the child abuse field? Because of kids like Sharon who remind us each and every day that we are making a difference and, even when we think we may have failed them, they assure us we have not. We never know what difference we might make for them - perhaps a difference that is not measurable by whether or not the perpetrator in their case was arrested or prosecuted, but rather by whether we listened to them, whether we believed in them.
There are currently 61 children's advocacy centers in Texas, more than in any other state in the nation. Cathy Crabtree, the former founding director of a local CAC in north central Texas, is the executive director of Children's Advocacy Centers of Texas, Inc., the statewide membership association for CACs in our state. For more information about Children's Advocacy Centers in Texas go to www.cactx.org.
CASA of Southeast Texas, Beaumont
I remember looking forward to the swearing-in ceremony as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. I had made it through the training and the mountains of information we were given. I can remember the instructors telling our large class that cases were waiting for us upon our successful completion of the course.
After the ceremony, the CASA case coordinator was waiting for us to come out of the courtroom so she could give us information on our first case. Despite its scope, the course I had just completed did not prepare me for the child whose life I would help shape forever.
I was paired-up with another classmate. We were assigned to a case involving a young mother, who had recently turned 13, and her 4-month-old baby boy. He was big, weighing 20 pounds at 4 months.
He had a full head of hair, and he was absolutely beautiful. Our first visit brought both joy and anguish because of the situation. This young mother talked freely about her past. She told us that her father was her first perpetrator. She told us that she had sex with 6 to 8 men a night. Her mom would get the men to pay, and then she would spend the money on their drug and alcohol habit. Her mom was on dialysis, but used drugs and alcohol daily. Her father was in and out of jail because of theft and buying and selling drugs. The baby was staying in a foster home because "our little mother" had put a pillow over the face of her baby to stop him from crying. She said that she tried to kill herself a couple of times because she could not handle the baby, and she wanted to party. We met at least once a week with this child, and not a visit went by that she did not ask about her son.
CPS was seeking termination of all parental rights not only for our young mother from her parents, but also of our young mother's parental rights from her child. Convincing a young mother to give up her child was the toughest thing I have ever had to do in my life. We found a paternal aunt and uncle who tried to take care of the baby, but the child, born drug addicted, had many violent outbursts and was too difficult for them to handle. The day finally came when we went to court, and our young mother gave up her rights.
I wish I could say the next 2 ´ years saw great strides, but this child continued to run away from foster care for weeks at a time, do drugs, and have sex. She spent many months in and out of psychiatric hospitals. She looked so much older than her 15 years. Finally, a caring CPS worker found a foster mom in another county who would be a positive influence in this child's life.
This case had so many ups and downs, frustrations, laughter, and so many tears. I know there were times when she did not like me, but I know that she trusted me and knew that I cared about her and her baby. If or when she needed me, she would find a way to contact me.
I lost touch with this child for almost a year. Then I received a call from CASA that someone visiting in Beaumont was asking to see me. It was this young mother, and the change in appearance and attitude was unbelievable. She was a young woman now, attending school and making As and Bs. She was focused on her future. She asked if I had seen her son, and I told her that he had been adopted and was doing great. She then told me how her foster mom had helped her and that she was considering a career as a lawyer or social worker so she could help children like herself.
I never keep my feelings a secret from the children I work with. As CASA volunteers, we have a tough job to do. We have to look out for the best interest of the child. Sometimes we do not agree with CPS, the lawyers or the judge, but we have to stand behind our convictions and what we know will keep the children we work with safe.
I truly believe that I have made a difference in the life of a child, and that is what being a CASA is all about.
All of us who work in the field of victim services are witness to the loss and trauma that young and old alike suffer when they or one of their family members is victimized. Historically, children have been the forgotten victims, forgotten by the system, forgotten by the general public. Their response to the victimization is ignored. Their experience, however, is real, and how we assist a child during this fragile time could have an impact on the rest of their lives.
Children’s understanding of trauma and/or death and their experience of grief differ widely, depending on their age, developmental state, personality, family and cultural background. Often their grieving may be unacknowledged because it looks different from that of the adults around them. They often express themselves through their behaviors, their play, and sometimes very quietly and privately. The adults in their lives often need help in understanding the unique ways that children grieve. They may be confused about the best way to respond to the reactions of children. This confusion can come from the adult’s discomfort with trauma and death, which is shaped by the denial prevalent in our larger culture.
When appropriate, it is important to educate the adults in a child’s life about how to help them cope. As Victim Services Providers it is important that we help to facilitate this, rather than solely taking on the task of helping children cope. Therefore in order to be able to support children through grief and trauma, we can help the adults examine their own history of loss, as well as their current reactions to the victimization. Many of them have losses that have not yet been mourned or that are easily triggered by new losses. Understanding and awareness of this will enhance their ability to help children cope.
It is important to recognize that each child and family is unique and each will react in an individual way. However that there are some general guidelines that can be considered when working with children. Children naturally self sooth and desensitize themselves to pain by not staying in a negative emotion for too long. This means it would not be unusual for a child to cry one moment and be ready to go out to play the next. Children’s reactions depend upon their state of cognitive and emotional development. They have a tendency to re-experience the loss or trauma over time as they move through the different developmental stages, allowing them to understand the event differently.
Children younger than seven tend to think in an imaginative, magical way. They need gentle explanations about what has happened. Children this age may have more of a tendency to act out their feelings and reactions in play, and may require more structure and reassurance. They may have a more painful reaction when they are old enough to understand the event more concretely.
Children between the ages of seven and eleven tend to be interested in more detail. They may exhibit more acting out behaviors such as aggression, somatic complaints, and school phobia. They need honest and clear answers in a language they can understand, as well as validation of feelings and reassurance that they are not to blame.
Parents often fear giving fully honest answers out of a concern that they will scare their children. While this concern is understandable, experience shows that when children don’t know the truth they sometimes make up a far scarier explanation or blame themselves. Once children become adolescents they have a new depth of awareness that makes life more meaningful to them, which can bring with it a new level of pain and anxiety in response to trauma or loss.
Teens become more curious about the philosophical and spiritual questions surrounding trauma and loss. They may experience some acting out behaviors, as well as more risk-taking behaviors such as alcohol or drug abuse. They need appropriate parental openness in sharing feelings and help in learning to manage their feelings. They typically respond well to support groups with peers.
As victim services providers we cannot take away what happened to a child victim, as much as we might like to be able to. We can however listen, believe, tell them that it was not their fault, and let them know how sorry we are. We can also support the adult caregivers in their lives so they can assist the children as they move through the trauma and loss of their victimization.
I had been working for MADD as a victim advocate for almost ten years when I received a call from Mark, the father of an infant girl injured in an alcohol-related crash. Ten years is a long time, and in those ten years I had seen the worst of the worst—there is nothing more horrible than watching a parent bury his/her child. But in January of 2003, I was confronted with something totally new to me…my first experience with a child endangerment case involving a parent as the offender.
I knew Mark would be calling, and I was confident, prepared, and ready to help him through his personal tragedy. Little did I know there was nothing that could have prepared me for the life-changing experience of working with Mark and his precious baby girl, Jessica.
On November 19, 2002, Mark dropped Jessica off for a short visitation with her birthmother. At the time, Mark owned his own courier service, and he needed someone to watch Jessica while he worked for a few hours. At 1 p.m., he received a phone call from Jessica’s grandmother informing him that there had been a terrible crash. When he arrived at the hospital, doctors informed Mark that he had about an hour to say goodbye to his only child. Two-months later, he was calling me, and two months after that he was sitting in front of me at my office. Miraculously, Jessica survived, though she was critically injured with severe head injuries and still in the hospital.
The pictures of Jessica’s face still haunt me, or perhaps the pictures of Jessica before the crash that haunt me the most. She was the image of perfection—an innocent child with sparkling eyes. As Mark handed me the post-crash pictures, I remember thinking, “She doesn’t even look like the same child anymore.” The bones around her eyes had been shoved into her brain. She was black, blue, and purple, and her face and head were swollen in an unnatural way from extensive re-construction surgery. As I looked at Mark, I knew our journey together would be a long one, but I embraced it knowing that Mark needed me in his corner.
After the crash, Mark was unable to work, spending seventy days at Jessica’s side in ICU, first at Brackenridge Children’s Hospital and then sixty-five days at Our Children’s at Baylor Hospital in Dallas. He could no longer afford his rent payments, lost his vehicle, and was completely financially devastated. We immediately began working on the Crime Victims’ Compensation Application in an effort to help Mark and Jessica. In a few weeks, Jessica would be released from the hospital and begin rehabilitation. Now daughter and father would have to start picking up the pieces.
Working with victims of crime is inevitably a difficult task. Bearing witness to another person’s pain and loss and supporting them through the aftermath of a crime requires a special gift. The impact on you, the victim advocate, when the victim is a child may often bring added difficulties and challenges. What makes these cases different?
In a nutshell, children are innocent victims and you, the advocate, have deep empathy.What can you do to ensure that these young victims are treated kindly, gently, with respect and prevent further victimization?
Our job is to be emotionally healthy enough for children at their time of need and then, being mindful of a child’s resilience following trauma, to step back and let them continue their journey.
Send your comments and stress relief tips to us at email@example.com.
This article is submitted by Dr. Jennie Barr, Mental Health and Program Specialist for the Crime Victim Services Division.
The most seasoned advocates are still stunned when confronted with the victimization of a child. The staff of the Crime Victims' Compensation (CVC) Program also experiences difficulty when dealing with the lost innocence of a child. Last year we received more than 5,000 applications on behalf of children who had been sexually or physically assaulted. This figure represents the second highest percentage of CVC applications received.
The CVC staff works as team in reviewing eligibility and making benefit decisions on all applications. This is especially true with claims involving child victims. Our eligibility reviewers, awards casemanagers, nurses, and accounting staff all receive specialized training to help them with the disturbing situations contained in offense and medical reports. We also work closely with the hundreds of CVS grantees who work with these children and who help their families complete applications.
To help advocates identify available benefits for child victims and their families, we have prepared a fact sheet for easy reference.
The FY2008-2009 OAG-Crime Victim Services Division grant application kits and information have been posted. To help you with the application process please review the update and new requirements posted on our Website. We will be providing updates on our Web site, so make sure to check the Web page regularly.
Our 2007 Conference will be held November 13-15 in San Antonio, Texas at the Omni Colonnade Hotel. A special all day session for OAG grantees only will be held on Monday, September 12. Come join other advocates for a multidisciplinary look at providing victim assistance in Texas and the nation.
For more detailed information, please access our conference webpage.
The US Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) has several online services available. You can also visit them via the link at the top of our Enewsletter masthead.
The Online Directory of Crime Victim Services is a Web-enabled, user-friendly database designed to provide victims and service providers with a means to locate or promote crime victim assistance programs in the United States and other countries. The Directory currently hosts more than 6,000 service providers who address a wide range of victim service needs. It is easily accessible to individuals in need of local services, and programs can be identified by location, type of victimization, service needed, or agency type.
The database relies on user submissions and content from other crime victim services databases and directories and is open to all crime victim service providers who want to list their victim-focused programs and services in the directory. Users may enter information by using the Web-based interface or by contacting the database administrator. The information is reviewed for content and language appropriateness. VOCA subgrantees are automatically added to the database
The OVC HELP for Victim Service Providers message board (Web Forum) is a tool for crime victim service providers and allied professionals to share ideas, suggestions, and recommendations concerning promising practices, best practices, and victim issues. The "go-to" place for providers and allied professionals to connect, the site features tools that include the message board, expert-led guest host sessions and archives, OVC News and Announcements section, search engine, hot topics identification, and Post of the Month section.
The OVC National Calendar of Events is designed to help crime victim service providers “Put Victims First.” By connecting service providers with a national database of crime victim-related conferences, trainings, ceremonies, and other events, OVC will help keep providers in touch with the latest resources to help them better serve victims of crime. The Calendar will allow users to view a national collection of events, locate and receive notifications of local events, or submit their own events to the Calendar.
Project Safe Childhood aims to combat the proliferation of technology-facilitated sexual exploitation crimes against children. This new U.S. Department of Justice Web site provides information to community partners that help protect children from online exploitation and abuse. Learn more about the program and access press releases, speeches, publications, and other resources.