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Voices for Children: providing hope and resilience to the voiceless

Photo drawn by child treated at Voice for Children during art therapy session

By Nyse Holloman, Esq. President & CEO of Voices for Children Advocacy Center serving Genesee and Shiawassee counties in Michigan

Click here to listen to Nyse Holloman, Esq. on our Caring for Kids radio show.

I started as the CEO of Voices for Children in 2015.  In 6+ years serving these communities, I have seen some horrific things. Crimes against children are crimes against our humanity and against our future.  I’ve also seen hope, resilience, and opportunity to break cycles of abuse and create a generation of informed, empowered, and caring humans who will take care of themselves, each other, and our world.  Children who have survived the unthinkable can heal, recover and become heroes themselves.  They transform into champions for other children and advocates for giving a voice to the otherwise voiceless.

Alex* (name changed to protect this child’s identity) first came to us as part of a grisly investigation of a perpetrator with allegations of child sexual abuse and rape against multiple children as young as age 4.  This man had access to the children as a family member.  Alex wasn’t the youngest victim, but did share what happened in the Forensic Interview[1]. Alex’s brave disclosure resulted in Voices for Children being able to partner with local law enforcement and the prosecutor to bring this abuser to justice.

Alex, the non-offending family members, and some of the other victims from that case still visit our center for therapy. We are happy to serve them and have them attend our free support groups. When Alex had to testify against the abuser in court, Alex was able to prepare with our therapy team.  Then, on the actual day of testimony our black labrador “Deputy” Daphne went to court with Alex.  Deputy Daphne provided comfort on the stand for Alex, as Alex shared the details about what the man had done to Alex and other children.  Alex represents many children, of all genders, races and backgrounds who need advocates.  They need safety, protection and to know that there are adults who care and want to help.

Child Advocacy Centers are a fairly new development in health and human services, within the last 20 years.  Before that, a young abuse victim might have been taken to the hospital or even to a precinct to be questioned.  The person questioning them would be a medical professional or a police officer.  Then, they would get taken to another location and questioned again, up to 10-12 times the child might have to retell about the abuse they suffered, reliving that trauma.

Not anymore! That’s because a Child Advocacy Center is a one-stop-shop for child survivors.  Instead of having to recount their abuse time and again to various service providers, they come one time to the Big Blue House[2] where they might meet “Deputy” Daphne, and they talk to a friendly (and highly -trained, but the child doesn’t necessarily care about that) forensic interviewer.  While they talk in the interview room, Child Protective Services, law enforcement and the prosecutor observe and ask questions, through the interviewer for their investigation.  This way the child is shielded from being bombarded by questions from different individuals.  The interviewer also knows how to ask the questions in a child-friendly way.

Another special part of a Child Advocacy Center is the wrap-around services provided by Victim Advocates[3].  These individuals are the non-offending caregiver’s first point of contact. While the interview is going on and afterwards, the advocates work with the child’s caregiver(s) to make sure the family has what they need for the child to heal and thrive.

The area where Voices for Children is really at the forefront of a movement for Child Advocacy Centers, is prevention.  We began offering prevention education in 2017 in the form of education for parents, children and the community.  In partnership with school districts in Genesee and Shiawassee County we offer the R.O.A.R. body safety program[4].  Other prevention topics for our trainings—all of which are available free and are currently virtual, include Infant Safety, Human Trafficking, Internet Safety, Adverse Childhood Experiences/Trauma Informed Practice, Child Sexual Abuse Prevention and Talking to Children about Race Justice.  Our staff also work with early childhood home visiting programs designed to prevent child abuse and we facilitate the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) program for Genesee County. That program serves youth ages 0-18 in the foster care system.

There is a lot going on, in April for Child Abuse Prevention Month and across the whole year at the Big Blue House in Flint and our Caring House in Owosso.  Mostly, we are always engaged, 24/7 and 365 in advocating for children.  With critical support from The Children’s Foundation, Voices for Children served more than 2,000 children and families (across both Genesee and Shiawassee counites) with forensic interviews, therapy, child and family advocacy and education.  The need in our communities is great and their support is greater!  Across the nation, 1 in 10 children experience maltreatment.  In Shiawassee County 1 in 6 children face abuse and in Genesee County the staggering statistic is 1 in 4 children who will face abuse, neglect or human trafficking before their 18th birthday.  This is why it is critical that we protect children, provide services to help those who have been victimized heal and replace negative cycles of abuse and neglect with health and healing to prevent abuse in the future.

[1] Forensic interviewing is a means of gathering information from a victim or witness for use in a legal setting such as a court hearing. It is a key component of many child protective services investigations. The purpose of these interviews is to gather factual information in a legally defensible and developmentally appropriate manner about whether a child (or other person) has been abused (Newlin et al., 2015) Forensic interviews are conducted by trained professionals, including child welfare caseworkers, law enforcement, and specialized forensic interviews at a children’s advocacy center (CAC). Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2017) Forensic Interviewing: A primer for child welfare professionals. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau

[2] Voices for Children is housed in a restored child-friendly home to make children and youth feel safe and comfortable. The children who use our services refer to us as the “Big Blue House”.

[3] Also known as Family Advocates

[4] ROAR is The CARE Center’s child-based education program that teaches children ages 4-8 how to protect themselves from abuse. The interactive and easy to implement lesson is free and designed to be taught in a classroom or group setting. https://carecenter-okc.org/we-educate/roar/

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