Program Spotlight: Safe Horizon’s Manhattan Child Advocacy Center

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Whenever I think about child victims of sexual and physical abuse—and there are sadly so many thousands of them across this country—I start with the fact that not only are they our most vulnerable population, but they have also traditionally been terribly underserved by a criminal justice system designed for adult survivors.

 

In 1977, when I was a young prosecutor in charge of the country’s pioneering special victims unit, New York City established a multi-disciplinary task force to create innovative ways to deal with these long-ignored issues: sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. Assistant district attorneys, police officers, advocates, mental health experts and physicians met regularly, but some agencies were so territorial that we despaired of finding a more comfortable way for children to disclose abuse.

In some cities and towns—like New York in the ‘70s—it is still the practice that a child who reports sexual abuse, for example, is taken first to a police station and exposed, often in the middle of the night, to everything from perpetrators in handcuffs to jail cells, as well as lots of men and women in uniform. They are then taken to a hospital emergency room, where it would just be a matter of good luck if a trauma pediatrician is on duty, where the child waits to be triaged after car accidents, shooting victims, strokes and other urgent matters. Eventually, he or she might meet with a prosecutor in a courthouse, a child welfare investigator and ideally someone to counsel the victim. Each of these steps takes place under a separate roof, at a distinct day and time, and, while necessary, the process often adds to the child’s trauma instead of relieving it.

The concept that seemed so hopeless to us in the ’70s came to fruition in 1986, when the country’s first “child advocacy center” (CACs, as we call them) was developed in Huntsville, Alabama. From that first center in Huntsville, a national movement was created. Today, there are nearly 700 child advocacy centers nationwide, and more on the way. But it was here in New York City in 1996, when Safe Horizon opened the first fully co-located CAC in the United States, that the idea blossomed and yielded the great results we see today.

Let me tell you a little bit about Safe Horizon, the country’s largest victim advocacy organization, which is based in New York and was founded in 1978. It’s a non-profit with long and close ties to the Joyful Heart Foundation, for which I currently serve as the Vice-Chair on the Board of Directors. The two organizations have partnered on many important projects over the years. Mariska Hargitay, Joyful Heart’s Founder and President, served on the Safe Horizon board with me (as does her fabulous co-star, Stephanie March), and Maile Zambuto, Joyful Heart’s CEO, led their development team for several years. Safe Horizon is the only organization in the United States to operate four fully co-located, nationally accredited CACs in an urban setting–serving children ages 11 and under, almost five thousand cases a year.

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