Transforming Mississippi, Defeating Child Abuse

Published 9:24 am Monday, April 1, 2024

Sponsored by Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi

Every Mississippi child deserves to grow up in a safe, loving, and nurturing environment free from violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen for many of Mississippi’s children. Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi is a nonprofit organization striving to change this trajectory for children in our state.

As Chief Executive Officer, I am privileged to work for an organization with a mission dedicated to protecting children and am able to bear witness to the devotion of dedicated professionals who truly care about helping children heal from the most traumatic of events. Our local child advocacy centers work with dedicated law enforcement officers, prosecutors, social workers, medical providers, therapists, and other caring professionals to streamline the process of child abuse situations and make team decisions about investigation, treatment, management, and prosecution of child abuse cases. Many Mississippians are familiar with these local child advocacy centers and their work, but may be less familiar with the work we do at the state level through the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi to support those centers every day.

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Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi was formed in 2001 when local child advocacy center leadership across the State united to form a statewide alliance with a goal to end child abuse in Mississippi. We recognized the need to improve the community’s response to child abuse and to have a unified vision for the growth of child advocacy centers in Mississippi. This was a lofty goal that we knew may take generations to accomplish, but our team has never shied from taking on a hard challenge if it means protecting children from harm.

Our vision, Transforming Mississippi, defeating child abuse, allows us to actively work each day to revolutionize Mississippi’s response to child abuse through leadership, innovation, and education.
Since our development, Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi has grown from an organization of mission-driven individuals to a large and innovative organization providing expert training, technical assistance, consultation, and funding for child advocacy centers across the state.

CACM facilitates statewide task forces dedicated to evaluating systemic procedures and making changes to eliminate both roadblocks during investigations as well as obstacles for children to receive services to help them heal from abuse. CACM maintains an infrastructure which has brought important uniformity to the investigations of child abuse and facilitated better working relationships between partner agencies.

By constantly evaluating how we can improve the response to child abuse, we have pushed ourselves to think innovatively. Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi was an early adopter of the ChildFirst Forensic Interview model for interviewing children regarding abuse allegations. We then advocated for needed reforms in our state laws which allow for accommodations for children to be made in court in order to address their unique developmental needs instead of expecting children to adapt to an environment designed for adults.

Several years ago, we took on one of our most ambitious efforts by initiating a Child Advocacy Studies program across Mississippi in an effort to ensure true systemic changes in the way we prepare our workforce. Child Advocacy Studies are college level courses that provide practical knowledge on the response to child abuse. Surprisingly, until the implementation of these collegiate courses, profession after profession had been learning to respond to these complex cases on the job when a real child’s life may have literally hung in the balance. In contrast, today Mississippi has 14 colleges, universities, community colleges, law schools, and medical schools offering Child Advocacy Studies courses and another 14 trained to implement the courses. Students are learning from the onset to work collaboratively for the best interest of children.

Mississippi is the first state to scale this program in colleges statewide, and we have received national recognition for this model. Other states are enlisting our expertise in rolling out these programs in their states.
The trainings we provide are not limited to college students. We have a team of professionals who provide expert consultation and training across the state for front-line responders including law enforcement, physicians, teachers and clergy. We have designed our newly opened Child Advocacy Training Institute to allow for these professionals to receive simulation training, ensuring that children and families throughout our state have access to proficient and skilled professionals responding to child abuse.

We are continually working diligently to achieve our vision for statewide coverage by continually expanding the regional development of Child Advocacy Centers and the continuing development of Child Advocacy Studies in our colleges and universities.

In the twenty plus years since Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi was formed, over 72,000 children have been served by a local child advocacy center. Just last year alone, 8,271 of Mississippi’s children walked through the doors of a child advocacy center. 4,005 children were able to tell their experience of abuse to a trained forensic interviewer offering hope that their tomorrows would be very different than their yesterdays; 3,200 mental health sessions were offered free of charge for children so that they may receive healing; and 4,674 children who had been victimized had their cases coordinated to provide the opportunity to receive justice.

We know we are nearing the critical tipping point in making available an evidenced-based, gold standard response for child victims no matter where a child resides in our state. We are nearly there. Through the generosity of Mississippi’s citizens today, the tomorrows for many children in our state can and will be better than their yesterdays.