This article is cross-posted from Olive Grove.
Maria was in second grade when her grandfather was arrested for forcing her to have sex with him almost daily in a bathroom at a neighborhood playground. After enduring months of abuse, she was brave enough to tell her teacher. Her teacher called child protective service and a social worker came to talk with Maria. She was then taken to the police station where she told her story again; then to the hospital where a doctor examined her and she told her story once more. Then, the district attorney interviewed her; then a therapist; then a case manager; the list continues. Maria told her story 10 times to 10 different adults. Each time, she was forced to re-live this real-life nightmare. Each time, Maria revealed less of her story, making it difficult to gather evidence needed to prosecute her grandfather.
In the United States, every year more than three million reports of child abuse are made. That’s a report every 10 seconds. For children like Maria, who live in cities without a coordinated response system, the trauma of abuse can be made worse by having to tell their story again and again.
San Francisco is now one community in our country that has Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), a nationally accredited and comprehensive center where law enforcement, child protection, and health care work together under one roof to protect child victims. Rather than a child talking with multiple adults and sharing his or her story multiple times, the CAC model allows a child to be interviewed one time by one professional, while the other team members listen behind a one-way mirror and collaborate to provide needed support. The CAC model brings the system to the child decreasing re-traumatization and increasing justice and healing.
A CAC is a fundamental public service: not having one is like not having a fire department. Communities cannot effectively fight fires without a fire department; equally true, communities cannot effectively protect children without a CAC. Until recently, San Francisco’s expert child abuse response team – the police, district attorney, social workers, health providers, mental health professionals, and victim advocates – provided services in an office in our local public hospital. Space was tight, people split desks and shelf space, and made do with limited technology. Based on our shared belief that there was a better way to coordinate a response, working across sectors – government (five different agencies), health care, higher education, and philanthropy – we began by creating a common agenda to:
- Build a best-in-class CAC in a child-friendly facility large enough for all partners;
- Receive national accreditation with high-quality protocols and procedures in critical areas ranging from emergency service delivery to cultural competency; and
- Expand our collective capacity to serve more vulnerable children each year and increase access to forensic, mental health, and supportive services.
Having a shared purpose was only the first step. In 2008, our task seemed overwhelming and out-of-reach. The country was in recession. Government and business were laying off staff and making deep spending cuts; few places were able to invest in new initiatives. However, we were able to reach success because of a strong history of relationships developed between partners and our mutually reinforcing activities. Success for one partner, meant success for all. The same was true of failure. It was paramount that we all play our part. For example, police and social workers investigated and referred cases; the forensic team coordinated interviews at the hospital; medical professionals interviewed children; the district attorney prosecuted cases; and therapists provided support for families.
We opened our doors in 2013. Once up and running, we focused on creating a unified system to measure our work and success. Our shared measurement has been to increase the number of children served at the CAC. This shared goal has ensured that we are holding ourselves accountable and meeting the needs of children and our community.
The key to our success has been continuous communication between the partners. Paradoxically, achieving clear, consistent, continuous communication has been incredibly challenging. Over time, we have developed formal and informal ways to connect. We adopted detailed and multi-partner agreements on how to file and share reports, schedule meetings, and create committees. We created opportunities for informal communication with a shared kitchen and copy-machine, and informal meals and gatherings. Food is a great organizer!
The San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center has served as a backbone organization. We have been the glue that helped all partners leverage their own expertise to develop a common agenda, share metrics, increase communication and expand resources – and, most importantly, allow our partners to continue to provide the highest quality of support to families and children in crisis.
Now, in 2015 – seven years after our start – success looks like this:
- The community can now access the Children’s Advocacy Center of San Francisco, as well as a pediatric and mental health clinic to provide a full spectrum of wellness services and interventions under one roof.
- We received national accreditation within our first year and helped approximately 466 children to date, an increase from prior years.
- We are updating our common agenda building upon our learning to enhance our data-systems, expand services, and reach more populations of children.
San Francisco adopted the collective impact framework and its five key elements (common agenda, mutually reinforcing activities, shared measurements, continuous communication, backbone organization) to successfully build a Children’s Advocacy Center. Now, together, we will take the next step to create an even safer community for all children – so no one has to be a victim like Maria.
The Children’s Advocacy Center of San Francisco, a program of the Prevention Center, is operated in partnership with the City & County of San Francisco – including its Child & Adolescent Support Advocacy & Resource Center, City Attorney, District Attorney, Human Services Agency, Police Department, Public Health – University of California-San Francisco, and Tipping Point Community, a significant philanthropic partner.