With a child-centered focus, Mary Beth Swanson and her team offer a safe place for youth who have been sexually abused to tell their truth.
TIt’s late afternoon on a sunny Friday in Fort Collins, and there’s a feeling of closure in the air. People are preparing for the weekend, returning final emails, clicking “save” on their documents, and making to-do lists for the following week. But in a beautiful brick house in the Southeast part of town, home to the nonprofit Voices Carry Child Advocacy Center (VCCAC), no one is winding down just yet. In fact, things are just ramping up.
Inside the doors, a cadre of professionals move around in focused preparation. Mary Beth Swanson, the executive director, tucks her blond hair behind her ear and straightens up the waiting area, which is a spacious living room containing an overstuffed sofa, a pile of kids’ movies and a plethora of stuffed animals, games and toys. The team’s forensic interviewer makes her way upstairs to check on the interview room, ensuring that the child-sized chair and table are tidy, and that the video camera is working properly. Down the hall in a parlor with a TV screen, a group of experts have gathered around a wooden table, including a detective, a representative from Larimer Country Child Protection Services and a Loveland police officer. They compare notes, waiting. In a few minutes, a mother and her six-year-old daughter will arrive for their appointment. There have been allegations of child sexual abuse in the home and the next step is for the girl to undergo a forensic interview.
The is a day in the life at VCCAC, a child-friendly, safe place for youth to disclose their truth. The center is part of a national movement; it’s one of 770 accredited facilities around the country that offer forensic interviews and advocacy for children in need, on neutral ground. In Larimer County, about 300 children receive services through VCCAC each year. Some of these cases involve physical abuse or a child who’s witnessed a crime. But 88 percent of the time, the “truth” means child sexual abuse.
Swanson, who’s been the director of VCCAC for the past 20 months, says that the movement was born out of necessity. She’s been a social worker for more than 20 years. In her very first job, in child protection, she remembers feeling surprised at how often sexual abuse came onto the radar. The human reaction to this is, she says, is, “this can’t really be happening.”
Yet it is. Even in Larimer County. The truth is that one in 10 children are sexually abused, and more than 90 percent of these children know their abuser.
Although these statistics may be enough to bring many people to their knees, it’s where Swanson and her team have the guts to stand up. And thankfully so. When allegations of sexual abuse arise, a potential crime has been committed against the child, and this means a lot of people—law enforcement, the district attorney, child protection—all may need to talk with the child. “These are adults who are used to talking with adult victims,” says Swanson. “It can be traumatizing for kids.” So instead of making the child tell their truth over and over—the estimate is 15 times—VCCAC provides a place for kids to disclose their story to one forensic interviewer.
When a family arrives at VCCAC, they start off into the waiting room, where the child meets with her assigned advocate before going into the interview. At this time, the people accompanying the child meet with a family advocate, because they need support, too. “A lot of times things have been turned completely upside down, and it’s a crisis of basic needs” says Swanson. “Maybe the family has suddenly found themselves homeless, because mom’s boyfriend was the one paying the rent, and now he’s had to move out. The advocate helps them navigate the system and teaches them how to be present for their child no matter how difficult or painful the situation may be.”
Meanwhile, the cadre of law enforcement officers and other experts watch the interview closely on the TV screen in the parlor, because a forensic interview is considered to be defendable evidence. Needless to say, it’s tough work. “There is an unimaginable amount of pain that happens in that interview room,” says Swanson. “You hear the worst stuff.”
When the interview is finished, the experts discuss questions like, “Is the child safe in the home? Did a crime occur? If so, do charges need to be filed?” They then meet with the family to discuss next steps.
Although Swanson admits it’s difficult to find traditionally uplifting stories in her work, she does emphasize that the services provided at VCCAC often empower kids and families to move in a positive direction. “Even though kids come here possibly talking about the worst thing that’s ever happened to them, they usually leave here feeling lighter,” she says. For example, she cites the story of eight-year-old twins who, after disclosing their truth at VCCAC, were removed from their abusive home and placed with a permanent loving foster family. They are now undergoing long-term therapy and rebuilding their lives.
As VCCAC moves forward, Swanson mentions two major goals. The first involves expanded prevention efforts. “If we educate adults and kids, we can reduce the risk to kids,” she says. Right now, staff from VCCAC teach a school-based body safety program called Safety Smarts to kids in grades K-2. In 2015, they reached more than 3,300 children in 18 schools in the Poudre School District. Swanson would like to teach even more kids, adding a curriculum for third graders.
Her other goal involves a renovation project right at VCCAC. Currently, they don’t have a medical room on site, and when kids need an exam, they’re referred to a pediatrician at Salud Medical Center who specializes in the field. Because kids who experience sexual abuse have a lot of questions about their bodies, a medical space at VCCAC would allow children to receive all of their services under one roof, without an emotionally (and sometimes financially) taxing trip across town.
The good news is that VCCAC has a perfect outbuilding for this purpose, and they will soon begin fundraising for the renovation. If passion is any indication of success, then Swanson will make it happen. “I’m one of those lucky people who knew pretty early on where my passion lies,” says Swanson. “It’s in child protection. We’ll keep building.”
To learn more about VCCAC or to donate, please visit voicescarrycac.org