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Canopy Child Advocacy Center opens to coordinate sexual abuse investigations, support children

November 14, 2018

Canopy Child Advocacy Center opens to coordinate sexual abuse investigations, support children

CLEVELAND, Ohio – A center that will serve the area’s youngest victims of sexual abuse opens this week, the culmination of a decades-long effort by child advocates to coordinate the response of many systems to reduce kids’ trauma and increase the chance of prosecuting abusers.

Canopy Child Advocacy Center will bring together social workers, medical and mental health providers, advocates, police and prosecutors after child abuse is reported, Jennifer Johnson, the director said.

Team members will meet with children and families in Canopy’s newly renovated space on Payne Avenue, so they don’t have to drive to different offices for appointments and meetings.

The work has always been done by committed people, Johnson said. “But they were all doing it separately.”

That wasn’t best for the children, she said.

It meant reports were more likely to fall through the cracks and children and families were sometimes unfairly burdened by a system meant to help them.

Children often were required to describe the abuse repeatedly to nurses, therapists, social workers and police, a practice that can be emotionally damaging, especially for a young child, and can result in conflicting information that isn’t best for prosecution.

With a coordinated approach, the goal is for a child share what happened to them in their own words with someone trained to gather the details needed by all the other professionals to assess the case.

One hallmark of this child-centered approach, Johnson said, is the center’s use of a tiny video camera high on the ceiling and a microphone that looks similar to a light switch cover.

During her research, she found that children often were fearful or intimidated by the two-way mirrors used to observe interviews, and that sometimes imperfect lighting allowed them to see people watching on the other side.

The logo for Canopy Child Advocacy Center represents the team that will work with a child’s case. The center talked to children in helping to select the “Canopy” name.  Canopy Child Advocacy Center

At Canopy, team members can watch the interviews on a live video feed in another room, where they can take notes or obtain a digital copy later.

National model

Since the national model, which was pioneered in the mid-1980s, gained popularity there have been efforts to bring a Child Advocacy Center (CAC) to Cleveland and Cuyahoga County.

For many reasons, including leadership changes and the number of partners involved, it never materialized.

Cleveland was the only major city in Ohio without a Child Advocacy Center based on the national model, which includes more than 900 such centers worldwide accredited by a related organization, the National Children’s Alliance.

Several years ago, the effort here was rekindled with a United Way of Greater Cleveland grant and continued with additional federal Victims of Crime Act grant money.

Johnson was hired a little over a year ago since then has worked with 40 community partners to get past the hang-ups that previously prevented a center from opening here.

The center has one other employee, Natalie Fedrigon, a liaison to coordinate services for families and the work of the multidisciplinary team partners from University Hospitals, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, MetroHealth System, Cleveland Police, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office and the Division of Child and Family Services. Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center and FrontLine Service have contracts to provide advocacy and therapy for children.

Johnson, a licensed independent social worker, previously worked at Frontline Inc. managing its child response team and a program that helped families at high risk for homelessness, work that readied her for the challenge of coordinating systems to help children.

Johnson’s hope is that here, as in other places where CACs operate, that number of abused children who get medical exams will increase, which will lead to better investigations.

For now, the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center (DVCAC) is helping manage the financial and legal aspects of the center, which has a $744,000 budget, until it gains its non-profit status, hopefully next year, Johnson said. Then the center will be eligible for additional funding.

Though it shares space with the DVCAC’s Safe and Sound visitation center, and both agencies advocate for children and have names that reflect that, Canopy’s services are unique, Johnson said.

Initially, Canopy will get referrals for sexual abuse cases involving Cleveland children ages 12 and under that county caseworkers have screened for further investigation or services.

In 2017, more than 1,300 sexual abuse cases were reported in Cuyahoga County, and workers decided more than a third required services or criminal investigation.

Based on those numbers, Johnson expects at least 20 to 25 cases each month.

Next, the plan is to expand and take sexual abuse referrals for children 12 and under countywide and also from law enforcement.

Eventually, Johnson said the center will also handle physical abuse or cases for children 18 and under and developmentally disabled adults aged 21 and under.

Abuse reports that are non-acute, meaning it is more than 72 hours since the abuse happened, will be referred directly to Canopy.

In the future, Johnson, wants to have staff available around the clock but since the center is freestanding and not attached to a hospital, like the other large child advocacy centers in Ohio, that’s difficult to do.

Because of this, some children will still be examined by specially trained nurses in area emergency rooms if they have injuries or need to be seen right away, Johnson said.

The cases referred to the center, will be reviewed at weekly team meetings.

A family can continue to receive the center’s services throughout the prosecution, which in some cases can mean a year or two, Johnson said.

Johnson said researchers from Case Western Reserve University will gather data to study the results of the new coordinated effort.

“Everywhere that I go, I hear we are the last city and county of its size to have a center like this,” Johnson said. “So it’s a really big deal.”

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