Communities note National Child Abuse Prevention Month
CAC of Hampshire County featured in "the reminder."
WESTERN MASS. – The Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) of Hampshire County commemorates April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, yet their objective and devotion continues year round.
According to the CAC’s website, “Our mission is to prevent and end child abuse in our community by providing safety, healing, and justice.”
CAC Executive Director Kara McElhone said, “We work with a multidisciplinary team and we create coordinated response to allegations of child abuse.”
McElhone added, “What that often looks like, is when there’s child abuse, we provide a safe space to bring together this team of people that includes advocates, police, prosecutors, child welfare workers, and we consult with medical and mental health professionals as well.”
The CAC model is one in which a child doesn’t need to repeat their story over and over again – a way to mitigate trauma, explained McElhone. Instead, the child will only have to tell their story once to a trained interviewer at the CAC, and the team who needs to prepare a response to the allegation will listen in. This model allows for the professionals to have all of their questions answered at once.
McElhone described the CAC as a “house, child friendly environment.”
At the CAC, the staff coordinates the care for a child, provides community resources and referrals, along with any additional care to assist them in their healing process.
Currently, the CAC has child abuse prevention flags flying on the Belchertown and Amherst Town Greens, the Easthampton City Hall, and the Northampton Police Department. The flags serve as a reminder for Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Pinwheels, a national symbol of child abuse prevention, are also displayed at the CAC for the duration of April.
A fundraising event called “This Little Light of Mine” was recently completed by the CAC.
“Two-thousand luminaria were lit throughout Hampshire County to honor the 2,000 children who’ve come through our doors since we’ve moved into this facility in 2006,” said McElhone.
She went on to say that they were fortunate enough to have musicians cover the “This Little Light of Mine” song, along with receiving a lot of support from community members.
Some locations had giant light up hearts, including Childs Park in Northampton. Additional lights were placed in downtown Northampton at the old Hampshire County Court House and the CAC.
McElhone said many of CAC’s sponsors and friends put luminaria out on their behalf.
The small, COVID–19 friendly gathering part of this event took place at Childs Park, where Mayor David Narkewicz of Northampton read a proclamation and the District Attorney spoke, explained McElhone.
With the event's overall success, McElhone said they hope to make it annual.
The CAC is a 501c3 non-profit organization. They rely on sponsors for events, donations, and community support to be able to provide services to the child abuse survivors that they work with.
McElhone said, “We do receive grant funding, but we are not a part of any larger agency- we’re completely autonomous.”
Donations are accepted year round and can be made on the CAC’s website.
In addition, the CAC provides community education and outreach. One task in particular has been assisting people, whether they’re individuals or in a group, navigate online privacy and protection. This program is known as the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC).
“A CSEC-involved youth is one who has disclosed or is suspected of having exchanged sexual activity for shelter, food, money, drugs, education, care, or anything of value,” according to the CAC website.
McElhone said the CAC has a staff member who dedicates their work to help people set up privacy settings, and even how to control chat functions on different platforms that their kids might use.
Another program that the CAC works with is called Youth with Problematic Sexual Behavior. This program works closely with children under the age of 12 who may be demonstrating aggressive sexual behavior towards other children. All children involved end up receiving the help and care they need so that they don’t grow up to become offenders themselves, stated McElhone.
In 2020, the CAC had a 30 percent decrease in reports. McElhone said, “The frightening part of that is we had a 70 percent decrease in the reports of the youngest children.”
She added, the majority of child abuse takes place with someone that the child knows, trusts, loves and often lives with. “While the reports have decreased, statistics tell us that actual numbers in child abuse has gone up,”she said.
As many schools in Hampshire County have recently gone back to in-person learning, the CAC has seen a quick surge in reports now that kids have access to educators and mandated reporters.
“We anticipate that the rest of 2021 and moving forward, we’re going to see far more cases of abuse because kids have not had the opportunity to tell anyone during this past year,” claimed McElhone.
The CAC has been meeting with people in person, but they also have been referring to therapists who they’ve trained – a lot of which are working virtually.
“The reason that we need this kind of program is that statistics tell us that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, and one in five children are sexually solicited online and the vast majority never tell anyone. We’re here when that child is ready to tell someone, but we know that’s only a fraction of what’s actually happening,” concluded McElhone.