April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and for Alpine nonprofit organization Children’s Advocacy Center of the Big Bend, maintaining a good community partnership allows it to fulfill its mission of restoring the lives of abused children in Brewster, Jeff Davis, Presidio, and other nearby counties.
A resident of Alpine for 30 years, Shanna Spence Sullivan has been the founding director since 1998. Awareness on child abuse has come a long way since then, and whereas there were only about a dozen child advocacy centers in Texas at the time, there are about 70 now. Sullivan felt it was very much needed in the Big Bend.
“Before children’s advocacy centers existed, law enforcement, Child Protective Services, and prosecution all had their turn with the child, so it was very traumatic for the child to tell the story over and over,” Sullivan said. “We take the multidisciplinary team approach, and provide forensic interviews of abused children to prevent them from re-telling their stories to each agency involved.”
The center relies on school counselors to report to the state suspected abuse within 48 hours to get the children into a safe situation. There is a multidisciplinary team approach consisting of CPS, law enforcement, the sexual assault nurse examiner at the hospital, mental health, and prosecution staff. As soon as the child makes the outcry, law enforcement and CPS refer that child to the CAC office, where the interview takes place.
Sullivan handles the one-time only interview process, where children’s testimony is recorded and sent over to the appropriate prosecutorial and investigative agencies. She has plenty of experience talking with abused children, having done thousands of interviews since she founded the organization.
“We follow it all the way through prosecution, we ensure the kids get needed therapy, update them as far as the judicial process, and where we are at on the case,” said Sullivan.
The center is also involved with community education and outreach where brochures and posters are provided to keep the schools updated on all new legislation. This month, the center is honoring Child Abuse Prevention Month by providing schools and teachers with educational packets that contain puzzles and games that can be used in the classrooms to get the message out.
There has been a recent drop in cases due to COVID, something Sullivan attributes to less student teacher interaction.
“I do believe that it is because kids weren’t in front of teachers for a good while,” she said. “It’s very concerning, because that’s where the majority of our outcries come from, with teachers.” Sullivan also handles extreme physical abuse cases, and she has interviewed child witnesses of violent crimes.
“It takes a lot of courage for these kids to come forward and report this abuse,” explained Sullivan. “We’re making sure everyone is doing what needs to be done so that these kids don’t fall through the cracks.”