“What happened?” the little girl was asked.
Social workers and cops thought the child might have been molested. They sat in another room looking at a closed-circuit television, watching a forensics interviewer talk to her and listening to the girl tell her story. They compared notes later to decide if the child had been molested, what they can do to help her and her family and if there was somebody that should be arrested and prosecuted.
That’s what happens when children believed to be sexual abuse victims are brought to the Philadelphia Safety Collaborative, a facility run jointly by several agencies, including city’s Department of Human Services, the Police Department’s Special Victims Unit, the district attorney’s office and the nonprofit Philadelphia Children’s Alliance. The facility serves the whole city.
“It’s a safe, self-contained place for kids,” Michelle Kline, a PCA forensics interviewer, said of the facility that opened in August at 300 E. Hunting Park Ave.
She said children aren’t asked leading questions like, “Uncle Joe touched you, didn’t he?” Kline likened the interview as a funnel, starting with general questions that move to more specific ones.
On Friday, March 7, local officeholders were given a tour of the facility in an event co-hosted by City Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez (D-7th dist.).
In a film clip of an interview that executive director Christina Kirchner played for visitors, a child, whose face was obscured, described how someone had touched her and how it bothered her. The interviewer gently asked questions so that she could get an idea of what really happened to the child as well as where and when it happened.
Finally, the child said she had not wanted to tell anyone because “I was afraid nobody would believe me.”
ADVOCATING FOR KIDS
Kirchner told visitors last week that the facility has victims advocates and that the children, if they need medical care, are referred to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children or Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Victims and their families are given access to mental health services. Provisions also are made for victims and families who are deaf or who don’t speak English, Kirchner said.
“We’ve worked very hard … to ensure we have a process that families shouldn’t be afraid of,” Kirchner said. “They shouldn’t be afraid to report [abuse] for fear of the system’s response.”
Families shouldn’t be ashamed to report abuse either, she said. “Shame is what keeps it in the shadows.”
Instead of forcing victims to endure multiple interviews in different settings, the facility’s set-up allows for one interview that can be witnesses by a team of collaborating agencies. Taking care of the victims is primary.
“The long-term impact of child sexual abuse left untreated can be huge,” Kirchner said. “But it doesn’t have to be a life-defining event.”
Not all interviews of child sex abuse victims lead to prosecutions. Out of 2,000 interviews, maybe 200 go to court, said the SVU’s Sgt. Joseph McEntee.
“This is a significant achievement,” Capt. John Darby told legislators and other guests Friday. Darby, the Special Victims Unit’s commander, said, “The focus is really on the victim, on the child.”
“This is a collaborative process day to day,” Darby said. “We share information, we train together.” He said there were 1,400 forensic interviews in the last year. “And day, to day, we are trying to refine what we do.” The goal is to serving 100 percent of the child sex abuse victims.
“We are doing this for the children of Philadelphia,” said Assistant District Attorney Erin O’Brien, who is stationed at the Hunting Park Avenue facility. She pointed out an example of the facility “helping a 4-year-old within hours that abuse happened.”
Kline and PCA’s Molly Lynyak said all parties meet every morning to go over the last 24 hours of cases. “It’s really collaborative,” Kline said. During those meetings, it’s determined what kind of further investigation is needed. Investigators take it from there. Some cases might go to the District Attorney.
Sometimes, the suspicion of abuse is a misunderstanding, said forensics interview Berth Bartolin. “We look at alternative hypotheses,” Kline said.
And that exploration of what happened is accomplished in a child-friendly way with trained interviewers asking objective questions, Lynyak said.
Given a nonthreatening setting to report abuse helps children heal, Bartolin said. “Children are resilient,” she said. “There is a lot of healing.” ••