PROVIDENCE — Monday was a big day for fighting child abuse in Rhode Island.
The Child Advocacy Center at Day One, the non-profit agency that deals with sexual assault of all kinds, earned re-accreditation from the National Children’s Alliance, and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin announced the creation of a special Child Abuse Unit in his office to prosecute the physical and sexual abuse of children.
Even before he took office after last year’s election, Kilmartin said he noted that “we have seen a lot of child abuse and child molestation cases.”
Peg Langhammer, executive director of Day One pointed to national statistics that she said show one in four girls and one in six boys are victims of abuse.
“I don’t think there’s any area of the state that is immune to it,” Kilmartin said. “It may be more prevalent in urban areas.
The Child Abuse Unit, Kilmartin said, will be led by Special Assistant Attorney General Shannon Signore, assisted by another attorney in the office, Ania Hopkins as well as Carlos Paiz, a victim advocate and liaison. All have experience and training in handling the emotional and psychological effects associated with physical and sexual abuse of children.
“There will be three people in the office dedicated just to working these cases – child abuse, child neglect, child molestation,” Kilmartin said Monday.
That unit will work with Day One, DCYF, Hasbro Children’s Hospital and local police departments, the attorney general said. “It is basically a united front from the day we find out about a kid until the day that a prosecution comes. We will all be working together.”
“The caseload warrants it,” Kilmartin said. “Last year alone, I think Hasbro said there were a thousand cases of child abuse or neglect that came through their doors, and that’s just Hasbro.
Kilmartin said he will consider the new unit a success if it educates people to the fact there is a coordinated effort to get kids help if they become victims and it raises awareness, “That would be tremendous,” Kilmartin said, “and another thing that would help make it a success is that we can help kids and get them the treatment that they need. We not only have the investigative parts, we have the medical parts, the victims’ services parts, we have the prosecution part.
“All these parts working together will help the child get the comprehensive attention he or she needs. It’s more than just the prosecution, it’s helping these kids through the system and getting them the treatment and care they need and getting them into a safe environment,” he added.
Kimartin said the effort started getting put together before the attention brought to the issue by the molestation scandal at Penn State University.
“I think Penn State though, if there is any good to come out of that situation, it is that it has raised awareness that it is being taken seriously and it won’t be swept under the rug by anyone and it’s wrong to sweep it under the rug. I’m hoping that it does raise that awareness and people won’t be afraid to come forward if they are victims or if they know about victims.”
“Today was a win-win; it was a good day for children in Rhode Island,” Langhammer declared.
“In terms of where we stand, I would say Rhode Island ranks as one of the best in the country as far as our Child Advocacy Center,” she said. “The feedback we got from people doing the accreditation was that Rhode Island is a place that could provide guidance and support and direction to any children’s advocacy center seeking accreditation. We’re that good.”
Day One, Langhammer said, has signed agency agreements with every police department in the state, it also works with DCYF (Department of Children, Youth and Families), with Hasbro Children’s Hospital and with prosecutors in the Attorney General’s office.
The same model is used to work with children in the Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH).
In the past, Langhammer said, children who were victims of sexual assault “would have to tell that story numerous times to different professionals. First to a police officer, then to a detective maybe a few days later, someone at the hospital, someone at DCYF, then finally a prosecutor if it ever reached that point. This process would take months before a case was deemed strong enough to move forward.”
Now, Day One has trained forensic interviewers who talk to the victims in a “child-friendly space,” she said. There is a camera in the wall (the child is aware of it) that transmits to a flat-screen TV in another part of the building that is being watched by a prosecutor, law enforcement, DCYF and medical and/or psychological experts. Those people can not only watch the interview, but can communicate with the interviewer through an earpiece, and the prosecutor and other experts can leave with a DVD recording of the interview.
“In many cases,” Langhammer explained, “the defense will take a plea because they can see this child can really testify.” The DVD is also admissible before grand juries, she said, and as a result the child never has to go through the trauma of having to relive an assault in court.
“We have totally transformed how child sex abuse is dealt with in Rhode Island,” she said.