The opening of a new Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) at the York County Courthouse designed to support children involved in sexual abuse investigations was celebrated this week with a ribbon cutting and tours of the new, child-focused, family-friendly facility.

Law enforcement officers, and child protection and advocacy groups throughout York County gathered to celebrate the opening of the new center on Tuesday.

Molly Louison, program manager at the York County center, said the model for children’s advocacy centers emerged across the country to reduce trauma, increase collaboration and hold offenders accountable.

“Today in Maine we bring the system to the child, and not the other way around. Children come to the CAC and play in our waiting room, where toys and books and puzzles have been donated by agencies and community members. Parents can ask questions, and our family advocate can assess the family’s needs and provide resources,” she said.

At the Children’s Advocacy Center, following a report of sexual abuse of a child, the child will be brought in and receive one specialized forensic interview with trained center staff in the comfortable interview room. All of the investigators, including law enforcement professionals, child protective services staff and prosecutors from the District Attorney’s office observe the interview on a closed circuit TV in another room.

The family will also receive support at the center from Molly Donlan the CAC’s family advocate.

Louison and York County District Attorney Kathryn Slattery said the old process involved numerous interviews, and was seen as a second form of trauma in childhood abuse investigations and prosecutions.

“It’s always been ironic to me that the process involved the children in something that is often more traumatic. That they’re subjected to more processes in the criminal justice system, in the child protection system and in family court, and they’ve had so many people that they’ve come into contact with,” Slattery said.

Slattery said prior to the development of the Children’s Advocacy Center her interview as prosecutor was often the fourth or fifth the child had.

“I’m really glad that today we’re starting a better process for all of us,” Slattery said. “Every child that comes to the advocacy center has been hurt, in many ways — physically and emotionally, and everybody in this room is interested in helping those children, helping them put those pieces of their lives back together again, helping them to come up with a safety plan.”

Assistant District Attorney Shira Burns said the CAC will help her prosecute offenders. Burns said when several different interviews were done, any discrepancies were used by defense attorney’s in the case.

“It’s absolutely priceless. Our prosecution of cases just gets that much stronger. When you have a video of the victim explaining what happened, and the defense counsel can see that, it’s powerful. For prosecution, the details are all there in one story. It puts the prosecutor in the case immediately. We attend every single interview, which is much easier because we are right here. Our prosecutors are able to meet with the family as the whole process starts.”

Kennebunk Police Detective Steve Borst spoke on behalf of law enforcement officers in York County saying he only wishes the center had been around even sooner.

“From a law enforcement standpoint, this is a huge asset to our work. It’s a good model for these kids and these types of cases,” Borst said.

He said he has had two investigations since the center opened a few weeks ago. In both cases he sat in the room and heard the child’s account of what happened along with everyone else involved in one space. He said it streamlined the process for everyone involved.

From unused basement to a bright, welcoming space

The new Children’s Advocacy Center of York County is located on the bottom floor of the York County Courthouse in Alfred. It was previously a dark, unfinished and unused space and Louison said it took some real “vision” to see it come to life. The walls are a calming light green and the furnishings are bright, kid friendly and comfortable.

“We love it, it’s perfect for our needs. Families come and play in our waiting room with the toys and puzzles donated by local agencies and individuals,” said said. “It’s a space where they feel welcome and safe.”

Louison recognized all of the law enforcement and child protective professionals in York County that work with the young victims at the center.

“We have phenomenal law enforcement professionals in York County. It is a unique honor to be allowed into a family’s life during one of the most difficult times they’ve ever experienced,” she said. “Researcher and author Brene Brown has said empathy is a sacred space. We are fortunate at the CAC to live every day of our lives in the space of empathy, caring and compassion. With the families we serve we undoubtedly see sadness grief and trauma. We also see sometimes the first glimpses of hope and healing and we see them nearly every day.”

Louison said the CAC will provide a coordinated approach that focuses on hope and healing. When she polls families after the interview is over she said almost without fail they feel relief and feel as if a weight is lifted off their shoulders.

“Providing a space for children’s voices to be heard, for professionals to work together and for families to be connected with the help they will need to move forward is a task we do not take lightly,” she said.