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The Catholic New World

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today’s Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.


Raising awareness helps prevent child sex abuse

When the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center opened its doors Aug. 1, 2001, its goal was this: to provide a single place for children and their families to go when there was a suspicion of child sexual abuse, to make the investigation process less traumatic and more comprehensible and to offer the support that children and their families need. It is one of the archdiocese’s partners in the Children Matter Network.

Erin Sorenson, the center’s executive director, discussed its work and ways to prevent child abuse with staff writer Michelle Martin in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month in April.

The Catholic New World: What does the Child Advocacy Center do?
Erin Sorenson:
Essentially, we facilitate a coordinated approach among the people who get involved with child sex abuse investigations to make sure that everybody is speaking with one voice and to minimize the trauma that families go through in the process of the investigation. Investigations can involve multiple medical examinations, and we try to reduce that as well.

A child only has to come to one place, instead of going to the police department and then a hospital and then another hospital and then the court.

TCNW: Who are the people involved in the investigations?
ES: The Department of Children and Family Services, the Chicago Police Department, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, John Stroger Health Services—their child sexual abuse clinic.

In Chicago we get about 2,800 reports of child sex abuse a year, so figuring a system out to handle this number of investigations has been a challenge. We work as a team through investigations and follow-up.

TCNW: Besides the investigation, what do children and families need most?
ES: Individual attention. Every child, every family, every situation is unique. But there are some common elements. They are all here because there is a suspicion of child sexual abuse. The first thing they need is an understanding of what the process is going to be like for them. The second thing they may need is crisis intervention, depending on how things have escalated before they came into the center. They need calm and unbiased management of their cases. They need to know people are not coming into the investigation with preconceived ideas—that a child must have been abused or that a child wasn’t abused.

What they need is a lot of support to deal with whatever happens during the investigation. On a practical side, families often need transportation. About a quarter of the families are Spanish speaking and the parents need translators.

TCNW: How often is the person suspected a family member or someone the child knows?
ES: Easily 85 to 90 percent of the time, the suspicion is against someone known to the child.

There are strangers. It does happen from time to time, sometimes in stores. They tend to be serial offenders and stay in kind of the same area, so sometimes there is a neighborhood alert.

But the vast majority are known to the children. Sex offenders are people who will look for an opportunity to be around children. So karate teachers, unfortunately we’ve seen an increase in them. Teachers, principals, church personnel, youth group leaders, coaches, with boys and girls.

TCNW: The archdiocese is trying to train all its employees and volunteers to prevent child sexual abuse. Is that an effective approach?
Whether the specific training is effective or not, time will tell. What it does do for sure is raise the awareness of everyone who works for the church in a professional capacity or a paraprofessional capacity or an employment capacity about child sex abuse. It will also put the word out to child sexual predators that the church is watching, that they are taking this seriously and that they care about the kids. Those are very important messages for any organization that works with kids to get out.

TCNW: What can parents do to keep their kids safe?
ES: Parents should talk honestly with kids, if they’ve had experiences where they were coerced or pressured to do something they didn’t want to do when they were young, whether it was with drinking or smoking or drugs or sex; it’s peer pressure in general. Share your experiences with them and tell them how you handled it or if you didn’t handle it well, what you wish you would have done. Kids don’t think their parents understand anything. The more you can show them that you can understand what they’re up against, they may be more likely to come to you.

So many kids we see get into a situation and stay in it for years and years and years because they are so afraid of telling their parent. If they would have just gone to a parent the first time it happened, years of their lives could have been saved.

You can do everything right and your child can still be abused. That’s just life. Predators are sneaky. Children are vulnerable. They are easily tricked and manipulated. I don't want to leave the impression that parents did something wrong if their child was abused.

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