Denver Children’s Advocacy Center keeps abused children from falling through system’s cracks

The vision of a frightened child recounting for authorities over and over an experience of abuse or other trauma is more a relic of the past than the current reality, thanks to child advocacy centers.

In 1995, hundreds of professionals came together to start the Denver Children’s Advocacy center. The multidisciplinary team that includes social workers, police investigators, therapists, prosecutors and doctors pursues cases as a group while providing help to children and families.

“People realized that child victims of crime were having to retell their stories over and over and over,” center director Michelle Davis, said. “Several professionals in the area felt children victims of these crimes were basic falling through the cracks.”

A child might tell the story to a teacher, then a school counselor or nurse, a social worker, to the police and then possibly during a trial. Repeatedly recounting a traumatic experience can be traumatizing on its own, Davis said.

“Children’s advocacy centers were founded to find an unbiased, safe space for a child to come to and speak and tell that story one time,” Davis said.

The Denver center has experts trained and certified to conduct forensic interviews. The interviewer sits down with a child in a friendly setting at the center or a space the multidisciplinary team shares. The interviewer asks non-leading questions in a way that is comfortable for the child.

Other team members, who are out of sight, might watch or monitor the interview, which is recorded. A report is written and shared with the team.

The center’s forensic interviewers use a nationally recognized, research-based protocol to talk to the children, said Sgt. Eric Denke of the Denver Police Department’s missing and exploited persons unit.

“These methods lead to a better interview from the child that is based on their recollection and not based on a rigid set of questions and answers,” Denke said in an email. “They conduct the interview in a manner that doesn’t involve a lot of the things you may anticipate in a police interview if you’ve watched TV.  This can help them (children) as they recount the often-traumatic events that they are revealing.”

The police department is responsible for the overall criminal investigation and for preparing the case to present to the prosecutor, Denke said. Children might still have to testify in court, he added, but the amount of testimony is often limited because of the forensic interviews.

“Having a forensic interview program is what makes us a children’s advocacy center,” Davis said. “But beyond the forensic interview program, we do so much more.”

The center offers treatment and other services to children and families. Davis said the center works with family members not guilty of the abuse to try to keep the family together.

The center also works with schools on preventing abuse, and educates families and the community about child development. Davis said the center works with underserved communities and has bilingual therapists and interviewers. The program offers services at satellite offices in the metro area.

Daniela Perez, one of the bilingual therapists who works with children, teens and their parents, said the traumas children are dealing with include physical, sexual and domestic abuse. Some of the children are toddlers.

“We work with kiddos as early as they can start walking and as early as they can start talking. We meet them at their needs,” Perez said.

Staff members use art, play and other approaches in treatment, Perez said. She has found herself working more intensely with the whole family when a parent is in the process of  being deported.

“The kids are affected socially and emotionally. Their grades are affected, their family system is affected,” Perez said. “I can’t prevent the deportation, but I’m here to help as we wait for court and the decision.”

Throughout the pandemic, the staff conducted therapy sessions via video or telephone. “We got creative with how we offered therapy,” Perez said.

The number of people the center serves has increased over the years, Davis said. Therapists met with 1,004 children in 2020 and conducted 508 forensic interviews. The year before, therapists saw 992 children and conducted 646 interviews.

Davis said without therapy, children who have suffered trauma can go on to experience anxiety and depression, abuse alcohol and drugs, and drop out of school.

“Getting into therapy and early prevention are very important so a child can be empowered to live their best life and not let this event define them,” Davis said of any trauma. “It might be a part of them, but it won’t define them and they can become a good, functioning adult.”

Name of organization: Denver Children’s Advocacy Center

Address: 2149 Federal Blvd., Denver

In operation since: 1995

Number of employees: 22

Annual budget: $2.4 million

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