A closer look
MINOT – Northern Plains Children’s Advocacy Center, described here, does a lot for cases where children have had a crime committed against them, including forensic interviews, family advocacy, case management, trauma therapy, and substance abuse treatment.
“Our most common client is a twelve-year-old girl, sexually abused by someone she knows and trusts,” stated Christal Halseth, executive director. “Other crimes we currently see committed against children include physical abuse, drug exposure, trafficking, attempted homicide, and witness to homicide and violence. It is important each one of these children are seen at the NPCAC for a forensic interview and begin therapy to promote healing and justice.”
The number of children seen at the NPCAC for forensic interviews and other programs increases every year.
Connie Wilson, director of Finance and Operations, and Heather Waller, Family Advocacy coordinator at the center, told The Dakotan more about why that may be.
“I would like to think it’s because children are learning more about keeping themselves safe and that it’s ok to tell,” said Waller.
The NPCAC recently doubled its staff conducting forensic interviews and family advocacy from two staff members to four. Each client is assigned a forensic interviewer and family advocate to form a team working on the case.
“Now that we have two teams, for example we can do two interviews at the same time,” said Waller. “We didn’t have that ability a year ago.”
Because the NPCAC has satellite offices in Williston and Bottineau, having two teams helps serve people from those areas quicker.
Halseth explains, “The goal in opening the Williston and Bottineau satellites was to ensure these areas have access to utilize a children’s advocacy center. Adding more staff allows us to travel to these sites so that children can be interviewed in a timely manner.”
“We are very willing to accommodate on what times the interviews are scheduled,” said Wilson,
Forensic interviews are scheduled at the NPCAC in Minot and its satellite offices from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Halseth receives calls on weekends, holidays, and after hours to provide guidance and develop plans with law enforcement regarding how to proceed when a crime is reported during those times. This means that at all times, an NPCAC expert is working to respond to a report of abuse against a child and working to support its Multidisciplinary Team Members.
Waller said the staff at NPCAC needs to take care of themselves as well.
“We’re not seeing healthy people,” Waller explained. “We try very hard to take care of ourselves so that we can keep doing what we’re doing.”
Waller said Child Protective Services can also coordinate times with NPCAC and law enforcement. Depending on the number of children interviewed in each family determines how much time NPCAC allots for the family.
There is one staff member in NPCAC trained for family advocacy, one for forensic interviews, and two that are cross trained for both.
“If one of us is sick, they can fill in for us,” said Waller. As explained in the previous article, the NPCAC had to triple its overall staff from four to twelve in order to fill the growing need of its services in the area.
“We added more therapy, we added case management, and we added addiction services,” said Wilson. “With a forensic interview you want to get it done as soon as you can.”
This is especially true in cases where the child may still be in contact with the subject who hurt them.
“We weren’t comfortable telling people I’m sorry, we’re booked for the next three weeks,” said Waller.
The NPCAC receives grants from government entities as well as private organizations.
“It just depends on what’s available,” Wilson explained. “Maybe one year a grant will be available and maybe the next year it won’t. We try to apply for as many as we can. It is costly to keep 12 staff going.”
The NPCAC relies heavily on fundraising such as its annual Champagne and Ice Gala, held in February. The NPCAC also participates in the St. Joseph’s Community Foundation’s Twice Blessed Campaign, Giving Hearts, and their annual Save Jane event.
“That is where we read off all of the names, though we just say Jane Doe,” Wilson explained. “It’s an awareness campaign.”
“Based on the numbers of the previous year, we read off all the names and the type of abuse they were seen at the NPCAC for, and by names we’re using Jane Doe or John Doe only.”
Save Jane serves an emotional tribute to children who have been victimized by heinous crimes, and spreads awareness that these offenses are being committed in North Dakota.
Most of the ages NPCAC sees are from around 6 or 7 years old to 14, but interviews children from 3 to 18 or older.
“We interview vulnerable adults, or young adults,” said Waller. The interviewers are trained to talk to children and gather information regarding the crime in a developmentally appropriate manner.”
Medical services are referred to the UND Center of Family Medicine, Waller said the ultimate goal is to partner with a health system which allows forensic medical exams to be conducted at the center.
Wilson said her job is to do all the Human Resource related tasks, as well as much of the finances and some of the operational tasks such as increasing awareness of the NPCAC in the community.
“I try to get the staff involved in community stuff,” said Wilson. “They all have different strengths. Service clubs might work for one person, but it doesn’t work for the next, so maybe setting up
at different events so we can have booths. Just getting our name out more.”
Waller has been working for NPCAC since 2014, and Wilson, after serving its board of directors, became an employee and has been involved with the NPCAC since around 2011. Every employee has his or her own requirements and certifications.
“There’s many different schools of thought and types of forensic interviewing,” said Waller. “We use the NCAC model.”
“That’s different from what our Child & Family Therapists have to be trained in, and the case management,” Wilson explained. “I’m in finance, so that’s my background. I love to see children, but I’m not wired to hear their stories. Everybody has their strengths, and the NPCAC staff are the best of the best.”
Waller explained that the NPCAC works to change with legislation, and characteristics of crimes being committed by keeping up to date with training opportunities.
“If there’s anything we can count on, it’s change,” said Waller. “So, we have to change with it.”
Waller said if the children are comfortable with it, she’ll do a mental health screening after the interview, and if there are any problems identified such as suicidal ideation, Waller provides them with a Child & Family Therapist and provides parents the right tools to continue to keep the child safe.
“We’re always leaning on each other for different things,” said Waller. “We have to know a lot about mental health.”
Wilson said the NPCAC has minimal turnover with its employees.
“One of the goals Christal and I work for is to make sure that this is a place where everybody feels important and respected as employees,” Wilson explained. “What can we do to make it so
that they want to keep coming? So we do not have a high turnover.”
Halseth adds that NPCAC staff are highly trained individuals with a great deal of experience.
“You are not only losing an employee, you are losing a wealth of knowledge and skills that is often irreplaceable and very costly not only financially, but also in terms of the well-being of the children who come to our center,” Helseth explained.
Halseth added, “Our community is extremely fortunate to have a children’s advocacy center. \Every child who has a crime committed against them deserves to have a CAC involved in their case. They deserve a team of people working in their best interest while fighting for justice. There is no greater issue than the abuse of our children and we must work together to ensure children who experience a crime have the services they need to begin healing and restore their childhood.”