Local advocacy center celebrates 20 years helping children and families
In the interview room of the Williamson County Children’s Advocacy Center, children are asked to point out the camera and recording equipment so they understand that their testimony is being videoed and recorded. “We don’t want them to feel deceived,” says executive director Monica Benoit-Beatty. “We want them to know we’re being honest with them so they can be honest with us.”
Children brought to the WCCAC by Child Protective Services or law enforcement officials have come for one of two reasons: they’re suspected victims of abuse or they’re witnesses of a violent crime.
Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) were created so that all services, police, medical, counselors, lawyers, would come to the child in one location instead of the child having to visit each of them separately. This arrangement also protects children from “re-victimization.” Barbara Garland, incoming board president of WCCAC, explains, “Each time the children have to tell the story, the trauma becomes worse. It becomes more embedded in their psyche. But all efforts are made to minimize trauma at our center.”
Monica understands that for a multitude of reasons, whether they’re scared, embarrassed, or ashamed, a child may not be as open and forthright in the interview room, which is why she believes it’s important that the child also get a physical exam. “When they’re in a private room with a nurse and it’s just the child and the nurse, children do tend to open up and tell even more to her,” she says. “And that’s actually stronger testimony because they’re telling it to a medical provider. It’s not considered hearsay, it’s direct, admissible evidence.”
Having a contract nurse on stand-by is new to the WCCAC and Monica says that was the missing piece to their puzzle. “Now that we have more medical options here, this is a huge improvement,” she says. “Cases can be investigated faster. It makes our team very cohesive because we’re all in this together, CPS (Child Protective Services), law enforcement, prosecutors. No one is in this alone. We all want justice for the child.”
WCCAC is part of the larger CACTX (Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas) organization. With over 70 CACs across the state, Monica says, “We have some incredible people running the state vision. They’re very proactive, always raising the bar, never settling.”
Outgoing WCCAC board president Marlene McMichael says, “The Williamson County Children’s Advocacy Center is a most extraordinary place, because the Center couples the very best in government resources with the soul and passion of the private and non-profit sectors.”
This auspicious combination is due to the work of CACTX and its push for conversations that begin with, “How can we make this process better? How can it be about the child?” WCCAC now has access to the CPS statewide intake reports (SWI). When an abuse report is made through the Texas Abuse Hotline intake system by phone or website a SWI is automatically generated and sent to the jurisdictional law enforcement and CPS investigators. “Since each independent unit works on different response timelines,” Monica explains, “it made it difficult to coordinate the best and quickest mutual time for families, law enforcement, and CPS to come to our center for an interview.” Now that CACs are also looped in to receive those reports, they have taken over the coordination and scheduling to get all parties into a center as soon as possible.
“The statewide average for children of suspected abuse now coming into CACs for interviews and medical exams is now three days faster since we have taken over this new role,” Monica says. “There is also a third set of eyes viewing these critical reports to help ensure no children accidentally fall through the cracks or off people’s radars.”
As WCCAC celebrates its 20th anniversary this year under the leadership of Marlene McMichael, the addition of the nurse and its inclusion of the intake reports were great achievements, but with this kind of work there is always more to do. Monica says, “Our building was built ten years ago with the thought that we would max out its space in twenty years. We maxed it out in ten. As we look to the future, we know we’re going to have to expand the building.”
WCCAC also has plans for satellite counseling. “Coming here for the interviews is the easy part, transportation here for counseling on a weekly basis is more difficult,” Monica states. “If people don’t have the financial means or the ability to take off work then they don’t stay in counseling with us. We plan to expand east and west to meet those counseling needs. And then we have to look at our staffing needs…”
Last year WCCAC served over 650 children. “That’s the equivalent population of one elementary school in Georgetown,” Barbara states. And as the county grows, sadly, WCCAC expects to see a growth in the number of children and families they serve.
“We’d like to work ourselves out of business,” Barbara says, “but it’s not going to happen. As much as we want it to, abuse is probably not going to end. So we want to be here, we want to be ready, we want to be able to give the best opportunities to these children as they bravely come to us.”
Filling the building with top-notch staff is one of those opportunities. “I’m really lucky that I have a lot of trained professionals working here and this is their passion,” Monica says. “Everyone is here by a huge calling and choice. Nobody treats this as a job. They come into work every day knowing they are changing childrens’ lives. Everyone is here for the right reason and it makes our job easier.”
Barbara admits some of it can be upsetting. “I think the thing that is so disconcerting to me is that the majority of these kids know their perpetrator. A lot of the time it’s a family member or trusted friend. Those are the kind of things that just break your heart.”
Marlene adds, “Abuse, at any level is a most disturbing violation of a child’s innocence and trust. Its effects are life changing. When children walk through our doors they are frightened and hurting.”
“But then you remember you make a difference,” Barbara says. “You know that everything the Advocacy Center does is going to help that child. You know that those children are going to be so much better off because they’re here and because we offer these services.”
Monica agrees. “When families walk through these doors, it’s often the worst day for caregivers and children, but it’s also the beginning of a new start. It gets the child out of a bad situation and gets them on a path of healing and wholeness.”
We can’t change what happened to these children, but we can change what happens next.
WCCAC Christmas Wish List
If you want to sponsor a child in need at Christmas there are three ways you can help.
1. Request a Christmas wish list. Complete the sponsor form and fax to 512-868-3970, or mail to WCCAC, 1811 SE Inner Loop, Georgetown, 78626, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You will then receive a child’s wish list and instructions to proceed.
2. Monetary donation. Individuals/organizations can sponsor a child by making a tax-deductible contribution, which WCCAC will use to purchase gifts for a child in need. Contributions may be mailed in with the sponsor form and a check payable to WCCAC. (Please specify the donation is for the Christmas Wish List.)
3. New gift/gift card donation. Individuals/organizations may also donate new gifts/gift cards from our list of frequently requested items. Please contact Gloria at 512-943-3716 for drop-off donations through Dec. 15th.
View PSA video, a collaboration of WCCAC and Williamson County Emergency Medical Services, at www.wilcocac.org/?page_id=1836.