In 1992, I became a volunteer advocate for a small program called the Women’s Resource Center. We answered a crisis line and became advocates for sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse victims. In 40 hours of training we learned how to critically analyze situations, problem solve, and engage women and children in meaningful dialogue that would help us understand their situation. I fell in love with the work and the people. Advocacy became my passion and my career.
When I became the Executive Director for First Witness Child Advocacy Center I was overwhelmed by the amazing community support for this small program, the connection and dedication among team members, and impressed with the skill displayed in forensic interviews. I also felt miles away from my advocacy roots with the lack of an advocacy response.
Within months of my new position, we took the advocacy philosophy and the skills I learned so long ago and created an in house advocacy program that centralizes the experiences and needs of the families. Then we took this philosophy on the road.
Throughout the last four years I have been able to present on advocacy at conferences and get involved with other child advocacy centers’ training advocates. We have been received with much enthusiasm from passionate advocates and agencies energized for their work. There are more than 770 NCA accredited child advocacy centers in the United States yet rarely are advocates seen and heard within the national conversation on child abuse.
Advocates receive little, if any, training on advocacy. Many face internal policies within their child advocacy centers that do not allow them to practice as advocates for the family. Instead, they are an extension of the team reminding families of what they have to do.
We know without a doubt, through experience and research, that it is the non-offending caregivers who have the power to create the best outcomes for children. Advocates are the only people on the team who see the big picture, and look long term at the family. The case does not begin and end. An advocate’s involvement is solely based on the needs of the family.
I hear many stories from advocates across the country about their status and work. Advocates’ positions are not well funded. I know of an advocate that took a pay cut within the same organization after switching to advocacy from being a forensic interviewer, another that was given duties entailing ordering lunch and making copies, or the all too common rationalization toward centers that we don’t need advocacy because the victim witness coordinator (professional titles may vary across the country) in the prosecutor’s office is the family advocate. Although victim witness is an important ally for families (and us advocates) going through trial, I asked these questions to attendees in training: What happens when the case is dropped? What about the cases that don’t even make it to the prosecutor’s desk? More importantly, doesn’t a family’s and child’s needs extend beyond prosecution?
If we truly want to intervene in abuse, and provide justice and healing for children, advocacy is essential and needs to be prioritized and funded. Advocates need training on advocacy, from advocates. Advocates need to be paid equally. Advocates need to be seen and heard, because advocates bring the voice of the families with them.