When a child experiences trauma — physical, sexual, emotional or otherwise — in a community that does not have a Child Advocacy Center (CAC), the child typically ends up having to tell the worst story of his or her life over and over again, according to the National Children's Alliance.
"They may have to talk about that traumatic experience in a police station where they think they might be in trouble," the website states, "or may be asked the wrong questions by a well-meaning teacher or other adult that could hurt the case against the abuser."
With that in mind, it's been a dream of the White Earth Reservation Down On Violence Everyday (DOVE) Program for years to offer a safe, child-friendly center for trauma victims — and they have now received a five-year grant from the Minnesota Office of Justice Program to develop the first Tribal CAC in Minnesota.
"The goal is not to further victimize the children by the intervention systems that are designed to protect them," said Jodie Sunderland, who was hired as the Child Advocacy Center Coordinator. "They're having to retell their stories over and over again to an investigator, a prosecuting attorney, a child protection worker... We're trying to create an environment where we work together as a multi-disciplinary team instead, so that we don't have to keep re-traumatizing this child over and over again."
The CAC model brings a team together that includes medical professionals, law enforcement officials, mental health practitioners, prosecutors, child protective services, victim advocacy representatives and other professionals to make decisions about how to help the child based on an interview, according to the National Children's Alliance.
"Currently, our kids are being sent off reservation to places like Fargo and Bemidji, which isn't really ideal for children who experience trauma," said Sunderland. "They aren't receiving the resources that they need to move forward and heal and, more importantly, this is going to bring together all of these agencies that are involved in these child protection and child abuse cases that are currently working in silos. Now, they'll be expected to be at the table — communicating with each other — to figure out what this child needs and what they've been through so that they don't fall through the cracks."
Sunderland has worked in the Tribal Human Service Division (specifically in victim services) for over a decade, and is in charge of getting the CAC up and running. Currently, that means that she is working with the Tribal Council to select an appropriate location for the center.
"On our end, we're ready to go and meet with the county agencies and the tribal agencies to get them on board but, right now, we're on a standstill to secure a location," she explained. "Our Tribal Council is looking diligently, but we want to make sure that it's right for this kind of agency. It has to be confidential and it has to be in a central location to Becker, Clearwater and Mahnomen counties, because they'll all have spots at the table."
Objectives for the CAC include having a response that is comprehensive, multi-disciplinary, developmentally and culturally appropriate, and evidence-based; having a neutral, child-friendly facility and culturally appropriate facility where forensic interviews and coordinated case planning can be conducted; having trauma-focused medical and mental health services and victim advocacy services; and having the ability to access cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural training as well as discipline-specific continuing education that enhances professional practice.
In addition to the center's multi-disciplinary team and resources, Sunderland and White Earth Police Department Investigator Breeann Brandenburger applied for a facility dog through Support Dogs, Inc.
"We were accepted," Sunderland said, "and the dog is in training right now. This will be the first working tribal facility dog in the whole country, which is really exciting."
She explained that the dog can accompany a child to forensic interviews or, if the child has to testify in court, the dog will be on the stand with the child, judge permitting. She added that studies have shown that facility dogs can help children focus and help lessen their anxiety.
Sunderland hopes to secure a location by late fall or early winter, and hopes to have the center up and running by the end of this winter.
"My role right now is working with other agencies to develop the protocol and the mission statement," she said. "We kind of want to take a different approach than other CACs in the state and make it family-friendly as well."
Overall, though, the goal is to provide a safe place for traumatized youth.
"There aren't a lot of protective services for children who experience trauma, and we don't want them to leave our doors without the resources in hand to heal," Sunderland said. "We have big visions for the CAC and, even though we've always had big visions, we've always been able to follow through. It's certainly going to be a challenge, but we look forward to that challenge so we can make things better for the youth."