President Barack Obama's recent decision to zero out funding for the Victims of Child Abuse (VOCA) Act in the fiscal 2013 budget shows profound disregard for America's children. Since 1994, each U.S. president — no matter his political party — has appropriated money for VOCA every year.
According to the National Children's Alliance (NCA), just over 279,000 American children entered the doors of a children's advocacy center (CAC) in 2011 to tell their stories, and the majority of these cases involved child sexual abuse. This is a huge number, and we know that more than 90 percent of child sexual abuse cases are never reported because most victims feel too much fear, shame and undeserved guilt to talk about their abuse. Being a survivor myself, I know what it means to be a kid and not feel safe enough to tell even one person about the abuse I suffered. I didn't tell my family about the teenage neighbor who terrorized my childhood until years after the abuse ended.
The Victims of Child Abuse Act has paved the way for the creation of children's advocacy centers that offer treatment for child abuse victims and training to prevent abuse from happening. In communities without established CACs, a child abuse victim may have to tell his or her account to more than a dozen professionals. In communities with established CACs, children avoid the revictimization of having to tell their stories several times and instead have access to multidisciplinary teams made up of medical, social service, and criminal justice personnel working together in a coordinated response. Children who have access to a CAC are treated and evaluated in a friendly, child-centered environment where they talk to a licensed forensic interviewer about their abuse while other professionals involved with the case watch on closed-circuit television. These professionals can refer to the digitally recorded interviews later.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and child advocacy centers nationwide need the help of responsible citizens to contact their elected government officials and demand that CACs be funded so the crucial work of intervention on behalf of child abuse victims can continue. Without this funding, many rural CACs will close, leaving victims vulnerable to further trauma; most CACs in major metropolitan areas will not be able to respond to police reports 24 hours a day, or offer services to victims and their families who do not speak English; and regional centers will be severely hampered in efforts to provide training for social workers, police and medical professionals.
There are 21 member centers in the Maryland Children's Alliance; seven of these children's advocacy centers are accredited members of the NCA, and three are associate members working on NCA accreditation. Baltimore Child Abuse Center, an accredited CAC, treats more than 850 cases of child sexual abuse every year in the city. According to Executive Director Adam Rosenberg, Victims of Child Abuse Act funding provides $20,000 to $150,000 in annual financial support to the center and its coordinating agencies. The center will lose the ability to help child victims effectively without this critical funding, and at least three CACs in Maryland counties with populations below 100,000 cannot afford a reduction in funding.
The National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation released its National Plan in March in which it calls child sexual abuse a "public health problem" and recommends increased funding that's focused on prevention efforts. Educating children to recognize safe and unsafe touches, teaching them about personal boundaries, and empowering them to say "no" helps to stop sexual abuse. As children cannot be solely held responsible for keeping themselves safe from abuse, we must also train adults about how to recognize, report and prevent abuse. Such prevention education provided to parents, educators, medical professionals and community leaders of youth-serving organizations is often delivered by CACs. Without adequate funding, this important prevention work will be extremely limited.
Restricting the work of children's advocacy centers also goes against the recommendation of the American Bar Association (ABA). On Nov. 19, 2008, the Criminal Justice Section of the ABA endorsed the CAC model: The American Bar Association urges federal, state, tribal, local and territorial governments to ensure that child victims of criminal conduct have prompt access to legal advice and counsel and to specialized services and protections such as those provided by child advocacy centers approved and accredited by the National Children's Alliance.
Child victims are perhaps the most vulnerable of all crime victims. There is a strong need to make sure mechanisms are in place where the legal interests of child victims can be communicated and upheld, as provided by law.
Nelson Mandela said it best: We owe our children — the most vulnerable citizens in any society — a life free of violence and fear.
Jacquelynn Kuhn, a Baltimore resident, is a program associate working in prevention and advocacy for Baltimore Child Abuse Center, a CAC accredited by the National Children's Alliance. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.