July 2011  

Harris County Children’s Assessment Center Makes a Difference

“I asked you for help.  You told me you would if I told you about the things my dad did to me.  It was really hard for me to tell what happened, but you told me to trust you -- then you made me repeat my story to 10 strangers."

Fortunately, the folks at the Harris County Children's Assessment Center (CAC) do not hear these words from children anymore.

The social, emotional, physical and economic trauma associated with the discovery of childhood sexual abuse can leave irreparable scars on the life of a victim and his or her family. Events following the discovery of abuse – repetitive interviews, medical examinations, referrals for physical and psychological treatment, investigation and prosecution – perpetuate the victimization of children. When not coordinated and processed with a high degree of sensitivity and collaboration, these events often contribute to a systemic breakdown, resulting in failure to protect the child, convict the alleged offender and stop the abuse. Because of this, the child often continues to be victimized and the entire family is traumatized. In response to the outcry of sexually abused children, the CAC was created and became a Harris County department in 1995.
The CAC is dedicated to providing a multidisciplinary team approach in the prevention, assessment, investigation and treatment of child sexual abuse. Its mission is to provide a professional, compassionate and coordinated approach to the treatment of sexually abused children and their families and to serve as an advocate for all children in the community.

The playroom at The CAC
The playroom at the CAC is as a safe haven for children
while receiving services at the CAC.
The CAC is accredited by the National Children's Alliance and is part of a national movement to create child-friendly intervention systems for sexually abused children. The National Children's Alliance accreditation process evaluates the CAC every five years and monitors compliance in 12 areas.
In addition, the CAC has an agreement with Harris County outlining the unique structure of the public/private partnership. All partner agencies sign agreements to define the working relationships and commitment between all partner agencies. This is done in order to meet the requirements set forth by state and national governing authorities.
Sexual abuse spares no race, ethnicity, nationality, or socio-economic group. It is often covered with a veil of secrecy and silence, which in turn perpetuates the cycle and enables the abuse to continue. There are an estimated 39 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse in the United States today.

Sexual abuse can occur at all ages. More than 20% of children are sexually abused before the age of 8. (http://www.darkness2light.org/KnowAbout/statistics_2.asp).

Age Gender Ethnicity
Alleged Perpetrator Relationship To Child Victim

What the CAC Does

The Children's Assessment Center programs are designed to provide a seamless collaboration to minimize trauma, break the cycle of abuse and empower families to protect children.  The CAC's services are designed to meet the physical and emotional needs of sexually abused children, their siblings and non-offending caregivers.  These services are offered through the following divisions: Forensic Services, Clinical Social Work, Medical Clinic, Therapy and Psychological Services, Children's Services and Community Outreach and Training.  Services are initiated when Children's Protective Services or a law-enforcement agency refers a child alleging sexual abuse to the CAC.

The Forensic Services Division provides specialized forensic interviews, extended forensic evaluations and family advocacy services to children and families to support the investigation of child sexual abuse. The
Child-Friendly Rooms
Forensic evaluators interview children in child-friendly rooms designed to make children feel comfortable during the interview.

Forensic Services Division offers a child-friendly environment where specialized forensic interviewers and evaluators obtain information in a non-leading, non-threatening manner. Forensic interviews are digitally recorded, allowing professionals involved in a case to simultaneously view both live and recorded interviews, rather than subjecting a child to repeated interviews. If a child does not disclose during the forensic interview, but there is other evidence suggestive of victimization, the forensic evaluators are available to conduct extended sexual abuse assessments. This allows a child the opportunity to disclose what – if anything – occurred. Family advocates are also routinely available to provide guidance and support to the non-offending caregivers throughout the initial investigative process and beyond, if needed.

In 2009, the CAC conducted nearly 4,000 recorded forensic interviews.  Forensic evaluators conducted 613 hours of extended sexual abuse assessments, and family advocates, through a program launched mid-year, served 59 families.  

The Clinical Social Work Division serves children who have been abused by persons outside of the home.  Historically, these children “fell through the cracks” because their cases fell outside of the jurisdiction of Harris County Children's Protective Services.  CPS caseworkers provide information, referrals and services only for cases in which children's daily protection is jeopardized by possible contact with the alleged perpetrator.  The Clinical Social Work Division fills this gap in services for children victimized by relatives not living in the home, family acquaintances or strangers.  The staff currently provides crisis intervention, needs assessments and community referrals.

Child-Friendly Examination Room
A child-friendly examination room at the
Children's Assessment Center.
Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital (TCH) make a significant difference in the lives of abused children in our community. Under the direction of Dr. Michelle Lyn, Professor of Pediatrics with Baylor and Chief of the Child Protection Section with TCH, the children at the CAC's Medical Clinic receive the highest quality of care by skilled physicians. These dedicated doctors provide the sexual assault exams and expert testimony that is needed in court. Pediatric physicians administer sexual abuse and sexual assault examinations, using state-of-the-art, non-invasive equipment. This helps minimize the child's discomfort and fear during the exam and provides recorded evidence that may be used during court hearings.

The CAC's Therapy and Psychological Services Division is instrumental in caring for the children's emotional needs and clinical management of cases.  The CAC offers a variety of services ranging from crisis intervention and psychological evaluations to group, family and individual therapy of child victims, siblings and non-offending caregivers. Therapy teaches children that they are not alone, helps them understand that the abuse is the responsibility of the offender and ultimately provides a healthy, guilt-free way to avoid long-term trauma. Upon referral, every child is evaluated so that therapists may design a unique treatment plan specific for each child.

The Children's Services Division includes the components of the playroom, volunteer program, the children's closet, art activities, holiday gift and clothing drives as well as a back-to-school program. Children's Services hosts the children's annual holiday party, the back-to-school program and many summer fun activities. In addition, the program provides basic needs of food, clothing and toiletries for children entering emergency foster care when they are not safe in their own homes. The CAC enjoys working with volunteers who, following extensive background checks, have been trained to facilitate and coordinate these direct services to child victims and their families. The CAC's on-site playroom, which is staffed by two CAC staff members as well as specially trained volunteers, provides a safe haven for children while awaiting services or during a lengthy investigation of alleged abuse.

Play Therapy Rooms
The CAC uses three play therapy
rooms with younger clients.

Finally, the CAC strives to increase public awareness of child sexual abuse through its Community Outreach and Training Division.  Staff and volunteers are frequently invited to make presentations to schools, civic organizations, religious organizations and other social service agencies to educate professionals and parents about issues relating to child sexual abuse.  The CAC continues to provide extensive community outreach including educational programs, community and professional trainings and expert court testimony. 

HCSO Provides Finger Printing Services
The Harris County Sheriff's Office provides fingerprinting
services at the annual back-to-school party held at the CAC.

Collaboration with Partner Agencies

The Children's Assessment Center houses professionals from 45 partner agencies, including law enforcement and medical clinic personnel, psychological/psychiatric services and governmental investigative entities, all with the common goal of protecting children.

Law enforcement agencies gather information from investigative interviews of children, collect evidence for prosecution, and provide protection during the intervention process.

The Children's Assessment Center provides a true multidisciplinary team approach to the treatment of child sexual abuse using a more efficient, effective and friendly process for professionals as well as for children.  This collaborative effort provides for best practices and the best outcome in child abuse cases.

Since its inception 16 years ago, the CAC has grown from 12 to 45 partner agencies. It has been recognized locally, nationally and internationally for its role in the child advocacy movement.  Other child advocates and professionals from all over the United States and countries as far away as Australia and The United Kingdom of the Congo have looked to it for counsel and guidance.  Many have accepted an invitation to visit and tour the Children's Assessment Center to learn from the unique public/private partnership.  Thus, the CAC has globally affected the way in which child sexual abuse cases are handled and has provided assistance for children far beyond its reach.

The Foundation Board of Directors continues to raise valuable dollars to support enhancement services for the CAC as well as beginning the “Restoring Hope, Rebuilding Lives” capital campaign to expand the facility to better serve the community.  Child sexual abuse in Harris County is not declining, and expansion is necessary in order to provide these critical services. The dynamics of child sexual abuse have dramatically changed over the last several years with the introduction of the Internet and the prevalence of online child solicitation. The CAC looks forward to expanding its training capacity to continue training first responders, teachers, guidance counselors and leaders of all programs dealing with children to ensure a true community response to child sexual abuse.

Volunteers are vital to the program to let the children know that they are important and that Harris County truly cares about its children.  Visit the CAC website to learn more about trainings and the volunteer program.  To learn more about the capital campaign, please contact Jill Buja at Jill.Buja@cac.hctx.net.

“Thank you for believing me and all your help.  You've helped me more than you'll ever know."

“I know it's your job, but I want to thank you for everything.  You have so much heart that intertwines with your profession.  As a result, the girls and (we) caretakers are blessed tremendously.  If all the abused children could have you by their sides, there wouldn't be a new generation of victims or abusers.  You have really touched my life.  The girls regard you as someone special and trustworthy.  You are an inspiration to each of us."

“Thanks for helping us find our way."

Outdoor Play Area
One of the two outdoor play areas used by
children and families during their visits to the CAC
Mosquito Season is Here
Hot weather means more mosquitoes, and with more mosquitoes comes an increased risk of West Nile Virus.
Mosquito Season Is Here In spite of our drought conditions, West Nile Virus continues to circulate in Harris County. Harris County is home to 56 species of mosquitoes. While most are merely pests, the Culex mosquito is the predominant species in the county that carries West Nile Virus.
Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services encourages people to eliminate mosquito breeding habitats from their property and to take appropriate precautions to avoid being bitten by disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Mosquito-Proof Your Property Personal Protection
  Help keep the storm drains clean.  Remove lawn clippings, leaves and tree limbs.
  Remove or empty any containers such as flowerpots and toys that can hold water.  Change water in birdbaths at least once a week. 

Keep rain gutters free of debris.

  Make sure screens are in good condition.
Personal Protection
  If possible, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts when outdoors, particularly at dawn and dusk.
  When outdoors, use an insect repellent containing DEET, Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR3535 and apply as directed on the label.
Most people who are infected with West Nile virus show no, or only mild, symptoms such as low fever and headache.  More severe signs and symptoms can include high fever, stiff neck, disorientation, encephalitis, and rarely, death.  If you think you have been infected with the West Nile Virus, contact your family physician.  Household pets can be exposed to West Nile Virus, too.  Contact your veterinarian for more information.
Enjoy the outdoors, but remember to protect yourself and your family from mosquito-borne disease.  Your best defense against being bitten is simply to be prepared.
For more information, visit Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services' website at www.hcphes.org or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website at www.cdc.gov.