LACONIA — The Greater Lakes Child Advocacy Center saw 177 children last year who were believed to be victims of abuse, mostly of a sexual nature.

The goal of the center at 95 Water Street – similar centers across the state and country – is to minimize the trauma on these young people, said Joy Barrett, chief executive officer of the Granite State Children’s Alliance, which supports the center.

Recent enhancements at the center are designed to help it better meet that goal.

These centers interview children to determine whether abuse has occurred, but across the nation, they are increasingly moving toward also providing on-site services for the young people.

The Greater Lakes Child Advocacy Center is the first in New Hampshire to offer expanded services, including a medical examination room and counseling spaces, Barrett said.

“Our center now offers on-site healing services,” Barrett said. “We are partnering with the Lakes Region Mental Health Center to help provide mental-health assessment and treatment on site, and working with medical providers to be able to do specialized medical evaluations for children seen at the CAC.

“We have on-site services that help children and families get the care they need post interview.”

The examination room is important in cases where the abuse may have occurred in the past.

“If there was an emergent case of child abuse that needed an acute exam, they would be seen at Dartmouth or at an emergency room, but for non-emergent abuse that may have occurred a while back, they should still have a head-to-toe examination to know their bodies are OK and that they are like other boys and girls,” Barrett said.

“Those exams were typically not happening. Our system tends to focus more on acute cases. We wanted to provide a solution for that.

“This model CAC replicates other successful models around the country that embrace healing support on site.”

Additional clinical support will be provided through the Pediatric Sexual Assualt Nurse Examination program coordinated by the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

How it works

Cases are referred to the center by the state Division of Children Youth and Families, law enforcement or the attorney general’s office.

A center staff member with extensive training in talking to children and supporting a neutral investigative process interviews suspected victims of abuse. The interview is captured on closed circuit television and watched live in a different room by an investigative team working with the interviewer.

“Disclosure is a process, not an event,” Barrett said. “They may come to the CAC and not disclose, but most come back and make a full disclosure. Some stories are horrific, so we stop when the child is finished.”

Child Advocacy Centers came into existence across the country as a way to prevent children from being frightened or distressed by having to tell stories of abuse multiple times to investigators, prosecutors and social service agencies, Barrett said.

There is at least one such center in every New Hampshire county, and more than 1,000 in the United States and 33 other countries, according to the National Children’s Advocacy Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the first one was created in 1985.

The children

Barrett said that, statewide, more than 2,000 children are seen at Child Advocacy Centers every year, but this total represents only a fraction of actual cases, as most go unreported.

“The common thread to share is that most children know the abuser,” she said. “It’s someone close in the family.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about how often strangers abuse children. Usually, it’s someone the child trusts and someone who has gained access to a child.”

Sometimes one caregiver will accompany a child to report abuse that was committed by another caregiver.

About 20 percent of the children seen at the centers aren’t old enough to attend kindergarten, but the average age is 9 to 10 years old.

Drug use in the home can be a risk factor for abuse, but child abuse occurs across all socio-economic groups, Barrett said.

“Abuse doesn’t always occur with the most vulnerable families,” she said.

“Abuse does not discriminate. So although children in more at-risk conditions are more likely to be exposed to negative behaviors and more likely to be in situations where they can be abused, that does not mean that a child living in an affluent community is not affected as well. We see it all.”

More information

Best practices for recognizing and reporting child abuse: https://knowandtell.org

To Report Suspected Abuse Call DCYF at (800) 894-5533 - For Emergencies Dial 911

Greater Lakes Child Advocacy Center: https://tinyurl.com/y5wtk8h2

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