The Child Advocacy Center of Niagara has served more than 5,000 children from across Niagara County since its founding in 1995. This child-focused facility is designed to coordinate a multidisciplinary response to reports of physical and sexual abuse of children, as well as cases where a child has witnessed domestic violence or has experienced trafficking.
It is a service of the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and is located in the hospital’s Golisano Center for Community Health, 533 10th St.
Nearly three-quarters of the children referred to the center are suspected sexual abuse victims and about one third of the children serviced by the Center are under the age of 7.
These are alarming statistics, or at least they should be.
“We need to recognize that these are hidden issues, but it can happen to anyone and we hope every adult is informed about it,” said Ann Marie Tucker, the center’s founder and executive director.
The center’s approach is based on a successful model used across the U.S. to respond to allegations of sexual or physical child abuse using a multidisciplinary approach, Tucker said
“Before we had these centers, if a child was a suspected victim, he or she might be interviewed by the police one day, Child Protective Services the next day, then taken to the hospital for an exam on another day, and then maybe the case would be referred for prosecution,” Tucker recalled. “Kids would have to be interviewed over and over again and I’ll tell you, there is nothing harder to do in this field than to interview a young child.
“But now, we coordinate the process,” she said. “We have one person, who is specially trained, conduct the interview and the others (investigating agencies) observe it through closed circuit television. The child knows this is happening, but doesn’t have to go through the interview over and over again.”
The center works closely with local law enforcement agencies, as well as the Niagara County Department of Social Services, Niagara County Sheriff’s Victims Assistance Unit, Niagara County District Attorney’s office and Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center to provide services in a comfortable, child-centered environment, where children are interviewed, given medical evaluations, participate in therapy and receive support services.
“We offer specialized medical services, trauma therapy and support services for the child and the caregivers,” Tucker added.
While it is important for children to know the warning signs of potential physical or sexual abuse, Tucker said the responsibility really lies with adults to protect these children in the first place.
“We teach children to say, ‘No’ or to get away, but I feel very strongly that ultimately, we as adults are responsible for protecting children,” Tucker said. “Children shouldn’t have to protect themselves.”
April is federally designated as Child Abuse Prevention Month and to help raise awareness, the Center is offering the acclaimed Stewards of Children program at three Niagara County sites this month.
Stewards of Children® is a national sexual abuse training program that educates adults to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to child sexual abuse and motivate them to courageous action.The program reports that more than 1 million adults have completed the training across the country.
Using a “real-world” approach that integrates stories of sexual abuse survivors with the perspective of professionals who interface daily with the problem of sexual child abuse, the training recognizes that adults have the primary responsibility for protecting children.
These free sessions will held from 2 to 3:45 p.m. each day, on Wednesday <April 18> in the Lockport Public Library’s Community Room; April 26 at the Niagara Falls Public Library; and April 30 in the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center Auditorium.
Jacqueline “Jackie” Pritchard, an authorized program facilitator at the Center, will lead the sessions.
The Child Advocacy Center has trained more than 500 educators, childcare providers, faith community members and other caring adults in the 7 years it has offered the Stewards of Children curriculum.
“When we prevent child sexual abuse, we address a root cause of social problems like violent crime, homelessness, teen pregnancy and substance abuse,” Pritchard said. “People who have taken the training say it sends a powerful message and should be taken by all those who take care of children and youth.”
An interactive workbook will be provided to each participant through a grant from the Niagara Area Foundation.
Pre-register online on the Classes & Events page at NFMMC.org or by calling the Child Advocacy Center at 285-0045.
Tucker recently took some time to talk more about the program and about the Center.
Q: What else should we know about the Stewards of Children training?
A: People are shocked to learn of the occurences of child sexual abuse, who commits these crimes and that they happen as frequently as they do. They are asked (through this training) to look at how adults interact with kids -- what policies are in place for church or camp volunteers, for example, to minimize the opportunities for this to occur. They’re taught what to look for and how to react in an appropriate way. They’re taught not to overreact and jump to conclusions, but to recognize when there is something concerning and to report it so that it can be investigated by people trained to do this.
The training is basic, but broad and very interactive. It combines the experiences of very brave survivors through videos, with discussion. The survivors talk about their experiences, what would have helped them, for example, and the discussions focus on ‘This is what we can learn and utilize.’
Q: Whom do you encourage to attend Stewards of Children training?
A: This is appropriate for any adult, but especially adults involved professionally with youths or on a volunteer level. We also encourage parents and grandparents to attend. People need to become more aware. When we first started offering these sessions, the average person thought, ‘This doesn’t happen in my community. This doesn’t affect me.’
But it affects every community and every socio-economic background. This could happen to any youth and to any family and that’s why we need to make people more aware.
Q: Do you offer this training more than once a year?
A: We do, depending on scheduling and demand. We also offer it to groups year-round.
Q: On Jan. 24, Dr. Larry Nassar, physician for the USA Gymnastics program and Michigan State University faculty member, was sentenced for up to 175 years in jail for sexually abusing more than 150 girls and women over two decades. Has this helped shine a spotlight on this problem?
A: I’ve been in this field 30 years and I was still stunned that this could go on for so long and involve so many people. That’s why education can be helpful, so that someone might say, ‘Something doesn’t seem right here’ and follow those concerns in an appropriate way.
For instance, you could ask in this case, ‘What appropriate steps can I take? For example, I’m going to make sure I’ll be in the room when my child goes to see this doctor.’ Then, if you still have concerns, those concerns should be reported to the appropriate authorities.
Q: How did you get involved in field?
A: The Center isn’t about me. We have a wonderful staff/team, with eight full-timers. We have two case managers, one interviewer, two therapists, an advocacy provider, someone who works with trafficking issues, and me. We also have four part-timers, who are medical and education personnel.
I also want to mention the people we work with, the members of law enforcement, Child Protective Services, prosecutors, and victim advocates because they are so dedicated and their work is exemplary but often goes unrecognized.
After I graduated from law school at UB (SUNY at Buffalo), I wanted to get more involved with the community and I started volunteering in the area of sexual assault issues with an agency in Buffalo. At the time, I didn’t know the extent to which children were the victims of sexual abuse, but I researched it and learned more about what happens to children across the country.
Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center is mission-driven and community-focused and recognized the need for this and stepped forward and was willing to do it. I came in as director to set up the center in 1995. We were only the third Child Advocacy Center in the state at the time and now there are just over 40. There are 800 throughout the country now.
This is a way to increase our experience and training and bring together a more coordinated approach. This has been a labor of love for me.
Editor’s note: More information may be found at: cacofniagara.org. Also, the Greater Niagara Federal Credit Union is recognizing Child Abuse Prevention Month by collecting comfort items, particularly new stuffed animals, throughout April for the Child Advocacy Center of Niagara. Greater Niagara FCU will accept these items at both of its locations: 2901 Military Road, Niagara Falls and 160 Ward Road, North Tonawanda.