Child advocacy nonprofit helps sexual abuse victims

“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.”


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.” ••

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