Angel Interview of the Month
Interview with Nancy Arnow, Senior Vice President for Child, Adolescent and Mental Health Treatment Services at Safe Horizon
Q: What is Safe Horizon, and how long have you worked there?
A: Safe Horizon is the nation's leading victim assistance organization, serving over 350,000 people every year. We provide victims of violence with vital services, ranging from very practical, concrete service such as food or shelter to emotional support and mental health treatment. We really do provide the most comprehensive, innovative services for people of all ages who have been impacted by crime and abuse - including child abuse, domestic violence, stalking, human trafficking, rape and sexual assault.
In addition to providing an array of direct services, Safe Horizon raises awareness about victimization and abuse. It really is a wonderful organization, one that has always been progressive in not only trying to meet the immediate needs of victims and their families but also striving to improve laws and systems affecting people who have been victimized. Safe Horizon was established 30 years ago, and I feel proud to have worked for this organization since 1988. I feel like I've grown up here. In that time, I think I have evolved and matured along with Safe Horizon. It continues to be a real joy to work for an organization with such an important mission - helping individuals, families and communities begin to heal after a crisis and rebuild their lives. And I must say that being surrounded by a staff that is genuinely passionate about this work and committed to providing expert services keeps me inspired.
Q: What is your role at Safe Horizon?
A: Over the past 20 years, I have had the privilege to work with almost all of our programs in various capacities. I'm now the Senior Vice President of Child, Adolescent and Mental Health Treatment Services. In this role, I oversee Safe Horizon's five Child Advocacy Centers, our school-based and homeless youth programs and our Safe Horizon Counseling Center, an out-patient mental health treatment facility specializing in treating child and adult victims of crime and abuse. Our vision is to expand this program and these critically needed services to satellite clinics in every borough throughout NYC.
As much as I enjoy working with these specific programs, I also enjoy staying connected to all of Safe Horizon's programs and services, and ensuring that child and adult victims of crime receive expert, coordinated services no matter which of Safe Horizon's 80 program sites they enter.
Q: What is a Safe Horizon Child Advocacy Center?
A: The Child Advocacy Center (CAC) model was first developed in 1985, in Huntsville, Alabama. It was based on the wonderful concept of having an expert multidisciplinary team of professionals including police, child protective workers, prosecution, victim advocacy and medical professionals investigate and respond to child abuse. There are now approximately 600 Child Advocacy Centers and multi-disciplinary teams operating across the nation. Safe Horizon's CACs are quite unique in that we've embraced and implemented fully co-located models, with Safe Horizon designated as the lead coordinating organization at each one. We are based in child-friendly facilities along with special units of the NYPD, Administration for Children's Services, Assistant District Attorneys, and pediatric experts from local hospitals. We work as a team to provide immediate, coordinated care to thousands of child abuse victims and their family members each year.
Q: How is Safe Horizon expanding the CAC model into other communities beyond New York City?
A: Safe Horizon opened its first fully co-located CAC in Brooklyn in 1996. Since that time, we have opened two fully co-located CACs in the boroughs of Queens and Staten Island as well. We are now in the midst of working to establish fully co-located CACs in the boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx. This will mean that these vital services will soon be standardized and available in every borough throughout our city. We enjoy sharing our expertise and best practices across the state, country and world for that matter, and we learn a great deal from other CACs as well. This is difficult work, and I believe there's a lot we can continue to learn from one another, both the struggles and successes.
Several weeks ago, we sponsored a delegation from Norway; they're opening their first Norwegian CAC, which is very exciting. We've presented on our model in Switzerland. There's really a global interest in this work, and increasingly in Safe Horizon's fully co-located urban CAC model.
Q: What is the advantage of receiving services at a CAC instead of a police precinct?
A: I'll give you an example: Imagine you are a child who has just disclosed that you were being abused. You are waiting in a police precinct, which is a pretty scary place; there are people rushing around everywhere, you feel like you've done something wrong. The police ask you to tell your story - a story that is scary and confusing to begin with, about someone who has hurt you, threatened you. Very often this someone is a parent or family member. It's a story that you most likely will have to tell over and over again in the weeks to come - perhaps in an emergency room, in a guidance counselor's office at school, to a child protective worker or a prosecutor. What often happens in this scenario is that a child begins to think that he or she is not being believed, and will often recant their story.
If that same child were to walk into a Safe Horizon CAC, we would immediately embrace him or her with a warm welcome, in a room filled with toys and dolls and books and child-friendly murals, and he or she might even see another child around the same age. This child would be asked to tell this same story during a special forensic interview, led by a specially trained member of our multidisciplinary team, while the other team members would observe the interview via closed circuit television and ensure that all of the information they need is obtained rather than having the child to have to get through multiple interviews
In addition to providing the child victim with a tremendous amount of support and compassion, Safe Horizon's CACs are staffed with professionals who also provide support to the entire family - the non-offending caregiver and the child victim's siblings. Often, families have many complex needs and we work hard to provide comprehensive and coordinated services right at the CAC or by linking families up to other services within Safe Horizon and in their neighborhoods.
Q: How does the investigation and response at a CAC affect prosecution?
A: Several years ago, the University of New Hampshire conducted the first multi-site national evaluation of CACs and found that CACs do result in more positive criminal justice outcomes. It makes a lot of sense - when you put together a multi-disciplinary team of experts who coordinate their efforts to investigate and respond, it really works!
Q: What kind of training is required of professionals who work in a CAC?
A: At Safe Horizon, we recognize that anyone who works directly with child victims of physical and sexual abuse and their impacted family members must be really skilled. We believe in equipping our own Safe Horizon staff and members of our multi-disciplinary teams with the knowledge and skills necessary to do this very challenging work. We continuously look for local, national and international professional training opportunities to send our staff to. Simultaneously, our own CAC staff are being called upon to educate and train others in doing this work.
Q: What kind of ongoing support does a child victim and his or her family need, and what does Safe Horizon provide?
A: Abuse is devastating to a child, and learning of abuse within the family is also devastating for the non-offending family members. The CACs offer the immediate and comprehensive services children and families need. In addition, we make linkages and connections for families to other services they may need both within Safe Horizon and in their neighborhoods.
Q: What is the first thing someone should do when a child discloses abuse?
A: I would say the very first thing we should do is take a deep breath and thank that child for telling you. It takes a tremendous amount of courage for any child to tell someone about the abuse they have suffered, especially in cases where the abuser is a parent or family member or someone well-known to that child and family. It is so important that we really listen to children and take what they have to say seriously. When it comes to reporting, each state has different ways of doing this. On our Safe Horizon website we have a comprehensive list of numbers to call in each state if you suspect a child is being abused and want to report it to authorities.
It is also important to remember that the non-offending caregiver will also need a great deal of support from their family and friends. Child abuse really does affect all of us and we need to help each other through this.
Q: What should a person do if they suspect a child is being abused?
A: Trust your instincts and take action. If you suspect that a child is being neglected, or physically or sexually abused, notify authorities who will investigate. Unfortunately, child abuse continues to happen all around us. We need to educate ourselves about the signs and symptoms of abuse and helpful actions we can take to. On our website, we have a link to a child abuse tip card that lists common signs of abuse. The most important thing, really, is to stay involved and stay aware. I'm a mother, and although I only have one child, I feel I have a responsibility to all children. I think we all do.
Q: What has Safe Horizon done to educate the public on these issues?
A: Public awareness is key to our mission. Let me give you an example. In 2006, something happened that really underscored the need for more awareness. That January, Nixzmary Brown, a 7-year-old little girl in Brooklyn, was beaten to death after a long pattern of abuse and neglect by her mother and stepfather. After it came out, there was an urgent desire on the part of the public for all of us to get involved, and take action to stop abuse.
In response, Safe Horizon launched our first comprehensive public awareness campaign, Stop Child Abuse, with the support of North Fork Bank. Mariska Hargitay was our spokesperson for that campaign, which helped to show people how to turn their outrage and grief into action by learning the signs of child abuse. We launched a second campaign in 2007 that addressed both child abuse and domestic violence. We'll be launching a third campaign in 2008 focusing solely on child abuse.
To help everyone recognize child abuse when it occurs, we created the child abuse tip card that I mentioned earlier. North Fork Bank sponsored that effort, and helped to distribute them in monthly statements and at more than 350 branches.
Q: What can people do to support Safe Horizon's role in preventing child abuse?
A: There so many ways you can get involved; our website lists many of them. In order to continue to sustain and expand services to child victims and their family members, we need the ongoing financial support from private donors.
Q: What changes have you seen in the public's perception of child abuse since you have been in the field?
A: It's interesting; I've been involved in working with issues of child abuse and neglect for my whole social work career. I think there is a greater awareness now that child abuse cuts across all cultures and populations. There's always been outrage over violence towards children, but now I think there's a greater understanding of how damaging it can be, as well as a greater awareness of what we can do to prevent it.
Q: Given the many traumatic cases of child abuse that you are exposed to, how do you stay positive and committed to change?
A: Well, the passion and dedication of our staff really keeps me revived and motivated. You'll see police officers who are down on the floor, talking in the most child-friendly way. It's all about keeping people connected, finding ways to counter this horrific information, and celebrating the successes of some of these cases.
I truly believe in this work. When I go to visit our various programs, I'm thankful, really. If a horrific thing has to happen to a child, I'm glad they have a place like a CAC where they can go. And you know, the resiliency of children and parents, the courage they have to come forward, that keeps me positive.