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
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
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
ES: The Department of
Children and Family Services,
the Chicago Police
Department, the Cook
County State’s Attorney’s
Office, John Stroger
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
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
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
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
TCNW: The archdiocese is trying to
train all its employees and volunteers to
prevent child sexual abuse. Is that an effective
ES: 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
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.