Child advocacy centre services
These services are designed around responding to cases of child sexual abuse
Guyana is an English speaking country on the northern coast of South America. Its landscape and the scattering of its non-coastal population present several challenges to delivering basic child care and protection services. Responding to the needs of children in indigenous and forest-dependent communities located in heavily forested interior/hinterland regions means taking the services to these locations.
With support from the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), a small team of young, diverse and passionate women from local non-profit Blossom Inc. will be headed into 5 non-coastal communities to deliver Child Advocacy Centre (CAC) services. These services are designed around responding to cases of child sexual abuse efficiently by ensuring that children have access to child-safe and child-friendly spaces, to share their stories, and get the support that will help them overcome the trauma they have suffered.
Founder and Managing Director of Blossom Inc., Mrs Ayo Dalgety-Dean, and Programme Coordinator, Ms Michelle Amsterdam, explained that their work to ensure children are cared for and protected is based on building meaningful partnerships with communities and existing groups that work within these communities.
“We want to collaborate with them (communities) to see what exists and what we can do,” Ms Amsterdam said. “We are there to strengthen what they have.”
It is important to ensure that such efforts are delivered in partnership with communities because they are ultimately responsible for keeping their children safe. It is also equally important to ensure that promises made to communities are kept. Blossom hopes that consistent engagements with communities will lead to higher instances of child sexual offences being reported.
Several communities will benefit from CAC services from July 2019, all of which have high incidence of child sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy. Blossom has already visited one of the communities identified to benefit from CAC services. The team collected information which they will use to determine how they can best engage the community to strengthen their child protection services. Similar visits will be made to the other communities which have been identified.
Blossom Inc. was established in 2014 to respond to a call for collaboration from Guyana’s Child Care and Protection Agency (CPA). Today, Blossom manages CACs in 4 of the country’s ten administrative regions and recently partnered with UNICEF to launch another centre in Region One’s capital town, Mabaruma. This newest CAC was launched on June 5 and will soon be in operation
“We are passionate about children and we believe that children should not be hurt…they should not suffer rape and sexual violence,” MrsDalgety-Dean said.
Since Blossom’s start up, UNICEF has always supported its efforts. Some of the equipment in Blossom’s CACs in Regions 2, 3, 4 and 7 is there because of this strong partnership with UNICEF.
Understanding the importance of CAC services will require a closer look at how they work. CACs provide specialized services to treat children who have suffered trauma. These services include conducting forensic interviews, providing court support, trauma-focused counselling and outreaches to educate communities.
“From the time a report is made to the Police or the Child Care and Protection Agency or to both, they then coordinate with us. We are second in line,” Mrs Dalgety-Dean explained.
Once contact has been made with Blossom Inc., the child is brought to their child-safe and child-friendly location where the forensic interview is conducted. The interview is conducted using two rooms and involves several people. In the forensic room, the child who has suffered trauma is interviewed by Blossom Inc.’s forensic interviewer. The interview is viewed live in an adjoining room by a multidisciplinary team (MDT) collecting information. After the interview, trauma-focused therapy is done. Later support services include victim support and court support.
Victim support includes things like checking with the Director of Public Prosecutions for updates, tracking the case in court, preparing the family for court and what to expect. Blossom Inc. also does role plays with victims to help get them ready for answering questions in Court. The entire process requires a lot of patience and constant reassurance and management of expectations. The Blossom team has to continuously manage expectations and repeat to families that Blossom will be there during the process and will help as much as they can.
“From the time a report is made to the Police or the Child Care and Protection Agency or to both, they then coordinate with us. We are second in line,”- Mrs Dalgety-Dean
From forensic interview to healing
During the first five months of 2019, 130 cases were referred to Blossom Inc. 97 forensic interviews were conducted and about 50 children are benefiting from trauma-focused therapy. Every single step, from the time a case is referred to Blossom, to the moment a sentence has been given in a court, is important to the child’s healing process.
Research has shown that professionals from across several disciplines working together to address cases of child sexual violence makes a greater impact. Given this finding, Blossom’s multidisciplinary team (MDT) includes representatives from the Police, the Child Care and Protection Agency, the Ministry of Social Protection and the Ministry of Public Health.
Once the child is brought to the interview room and the MDT settles in the adjoining room to watch the live feed, it is the job of the forensic interviewer to ask the child questions in a way that “maximizes the child’s ability to provide information”. The forensic interviewer has specialized training and skills that helps the child feel safe and not feel intimidated or threatened. There is also space in the process for the MDT to ask questions if needed but generally, the forensic interviewer understands the information needs and asks the relevant questions.
Getting the right information during this process is very important because it forms a major part of the evidence that goes to Court. During these interviews, children are never asked “why” questions. The “tell me more” phrase is used over and over and interviewers encourage children to tell as much as they can.
Lisa (not her real name) was referred to Blossom Inc. in 2015 when she was about 15 years old. She suffered sexual assault at the hand of her step-father’s nephew. This assault, combined with a very dysfunctional and combative relationship between Lisa’s mother and step-father, created a very traumatic experience for her.
“Because she was exposed to sexual abuse at such a young age, her behaviour was mature,” Ms Amsterdam recalled.
Education about sexual abuse, about the perpetrators and why they do what they do, coupled with trauma-focused therapy that targeted Lisa’s thoughts and behaviours, were important in ensuring that she had the tools she needed to cope with her trauma. Added to this, her mother was a pillar in her support system.
This entire process from forensic interview to conviction is supported by CACs and give children a second chance at a normal life.
Having a parent or role model present is important as they need to learn how to support the child. Some children might think ‘it’s my fault’; you have to help them to assess their thoughts and develop coping skills to manage trauma and get over it.
Last year the man who sexually assaulted Lisa was sentenced to life in prison. “A conviction”, Founder and Manager Mrs Dalgety-Dean stated, “is equivalent to being believed”. And being believed is a big part of the healing process. This entire process from forensic interview to conviction is supported by CACs and give children a second chance at a normal life.
Blossom hopes their work will contribute to creating a world of happy adults who succeed at whatever they choose to do in the world. These positive signs can already be seen in the children who have benefited from CAC services. Having UNICEF’s support has been very valuable to Blossom because they are very responsive and always willing to share resources, especially when it matters most.
“I believe in the chain reaction of various moments… the persons we do help, hopefully they will go on to help someone else,” Ms Amsterdam shared in response to the kind of world she hopes Blossom’s work will help to build.
Giving this kind of hope to children who live in hinterland villages is very important to ensuring that many of Guyana’s children have a chance at a normal life after suffering trauma. Providing CAC services in remote areas is an important first step in giving more children the care, protection, love and respect they need.