12:13 PM

Child Protection Center honored for helping advance justice

The Missouri Bar Young Lawyers’ Section Liberty Bell Award honors a non-lawyer or non-legal organization engaged in public service activities that either enhance the legal community or advance justice. This year, the Child Protection Center (CPC) has been selected for recognition for its service, especially to children, over the last 24 years.

“Receiving this award is a chance to continue sharing about our work in the community and reducing the stigma surrounding child physical and sexual abuse,” said Laura Willeke, CPC’s director of development. “With increased exposure to community members comes increased utilization of our services and increased support to children and families experiencing trauma.”

Since 1996, the CPC has assisted victims of child abuse and their families in Jackson, Cass and a portion of Lafayette counties. The CPC is a safe place for children ages 3-17 who are alleged victims of sexual or physical abuse, or who have witnessed violent crimes, to provide their statement about their experience. The CPC is the only nationally accredited Child Advocacy Center in Jackson and Cass counties, and it provides services to an average of five child victims of abuse and their non-offending caregivers every day.

“Imagine if the approximately 800 children who the Child Protection Center serves on an annual basis didn’t have the CPC to turn to,” said Willeke. “What would their future look like? With whom would they share their story?”

To better understand the CPC and what a children’s advocacy center is, Willeke said you must understand what children face without one.

According to the National Children's Alliance, without a children’s advocacy center, the child may end up having to tell the worst story of his or her life over and over again to doctors, police officers, lawyers, therapists, investigators, judges, and others. They may have to talk about that traumatic experience in a police station where they think they might be in trouble, or may be asked the wrong questions by a well-meaning teacher or other adult that could hurt the case against the abuser.

Willeke explained when police or child protective services believe a child is being abused, the child is brought to the CPC by a caregiver or other “safe” adult. Willeke said the child tells their story once to a trained interviewer who knows the right questions to ask in a way that does not re-traumatize the child. Then, a team that includes medical professionals, law enforcement, mental health advocates, prosecutors, child protective services, victim advocates, and other professionals make decisions together about how to help the child based on the interview; offering therapy and medical exams, courtroom preparation, victim advocacy, case management and other services.

Originally located at Children’s Mercy Hospital, the CPC later became a “program” of the Jackson County Family Court. In 2006, the CPC was established as an independent nonprofit organization. Willeke said the CPC collaborates with a wide array of multidisciplinary partners to carry out its mission to respect the child and protect their voice throughout the investigation of child abuse. She added their main objective is to reduce trauma by improving collaborative responses in the investigation, assessment, treatment and prosecution of cases involving children.

The Child Protection Center provides forensic interviews, family advocacy and mental health services for alleged child abuse victims and their families. The CPC first gathers information from the child and investigates the allegations to assess child safety.

Willeke said the family advocacy program steps in for crisis interventions, education and support for caregivers and referrals and information for child victims and their families. She noted family advocates help caregivers understand the dynamics of abuse, the importance of mental health treatment for the child and family, and how to navigate the complex emotional, physical and legal issues that arise following their child’s report of abuse. Beyond that, the family advocates also follow up extensively to ensure that families have access to a wide variety of services to overcome barriers.

Willeke said the CPC’s mental health services program serves children who are experiencing trauma reactions, providing an array of relevant, effective, evidence-based short and long-term modalities.

Willeke shared one striking example in which two girls, ages three and eight, came to the CPC for an emergency forensic interview requested by the Kansas City Missouri Police Department. They were referred to the CPC after telling their grandmother they witnessed an alleged perpetrator murder their mother. The girls arrived at the CPC two hours after the incident and immediately sat down with a forensic interviewer. The three-year-old girl, who arrived with blood on her clothing, immediately disclosed that her who had killed her mother, although it took a second interview a year later for the older girl to be able to reveal the identity of the person she saw in the attack.

Willeke said while the two girls were speaking to a forensic interviewer, one of the center’s family advocates met with the grandmother to assess critical resources, refer for mental health services and provide immediate and ongoing support. In 2019, the forensic interviewer testified before a jury in criminal court. Willeke reports the perpetrator is now serving a sentence of life in prison.

Willeke shared an example of how the CPC’s mental health services program helps children. She said a 16-year-old was referred to the center for therapy after disclosure of sexual abuse as a young child and a family background involving domestic violence. When the young person began therapy, they were struggling with intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, and weekly panic attacks. Through trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, the young person learned mindfulness and relaxation skills to manage anxious feelings and treat panic attacks. A parent of the young person also participated in therapy and learned how to support their child. With their therapist, the young person was able to process traumatic memories and talk about their related thoughts and feelings in a manner that helped them feel more compassion for themself. The young person recently completed their first year in college and reports they feel hopeful about their future.

Click here to learn more about The Missouri Bar’s annual awards.