By Todd Cohen
HIGH POINT, N.C. — In the mid-1980s, in the face of a surge in the number of local cases of child sexual abuse, Cathy Purvis was able to expand the rape-crisis program she directed at what then was known as Family Service of High Point to include victim-advocacy for abused children.
That expanded program, in turn, grew into the state’s first local children’s advocacy center that uses a multi-disciplinary-team approach to assist local agencies that investigate, prosecute and treat abuse.
Today, North Carolina is home to 23 accredited children’s advocacy centers that serve 74 of the state’s 100 counties, with 11 other counties developing centers, including nine that already are providing services.
Providing technical assistance, support and training for those centers is a statewide group, Children’s Advocacy Centers of North Carolina, which is based in High Point and headed by Purvis.
And the workload at the local centers is growing: In 2010, the number of child-abuse cases investigated through the centers totaled 5,138, an increase of 10.5 percent from 2009, with 70 percent of those cases involving sexual abuse.
“In times of economic stress, that is not unusual,” Purvis says. “Economic stress causes tension in families, and that leads to abuse. You see more domestic violence, too.”
Modeled on a program developed by the district attorney’s office in Huntsville, Ala., the multi-disciplinary-team approach aims to help coordinate the work of multiple law-enforcement, health and social-services agencies and help minimize the time children and their families must spend, and the trauma they must relive, in working with those agencies.
A typical team includes professionals representing child-protection agencies, law enforcement, medical providers, prosecutors, victim advocates, mental-health providers, guardians ad litem, and the local children’s advocacy center.
In North Carolina, 94 percent of all child-abuse cases were processed within 14 days of the initial referral to a children’s advocacy center, much more quickly than cases not handled by the multi-disciplinary-team model, Purvis says.
Operating with an annual budget of $198,000, the statewide group is a chapter of the National Children’s Alliance.
In 2010, the statewide group provided training for 700 professionals from all disciplines involved in child-abuse investigations in the state, including 400 professionals trained at an annual symposium on child abuse and neglect it sponsored in collaboration with the Child Medical Evaluation Program at the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, and the North Carolina Justice Academy.
Purvis says children’s advocacy centers improve services for children and their families and caregivers.
A three-year study funded by The Duke Endowment in Charlotte that measured the effectiveness of children’s advocacy centers found 98 percent of caregivers reported “seamless and integrated services,” for example, while 91 percent were better able to protect and support their child after receiving services from a center.
And 83 percent of children showed reduced trauma symptoms after receiving services from a children’s advocacy center.
Purvis says the centers also are cost-efficient: For every $1 in state funding it received in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011, she says, a child advocacy center raised $16 from other funding sources, with state funding accounting for only 6 percent of the total operating budgets of the centers.
“In the current economic crisis, local communities where we have children’s advocacy centers have really stepped up to help make up the shortfall in funds for these centers,” Purvis says. “That demonstrates the value of children’s advocacy centers for local communities”