For more information about the Chicago Children's Advocacy
Center, call (312) 492-3700, email [email protected] or visit
To report suspected abuse in the Chicago area, call 911 or (800)
The two young children sat helplessly while pornographic images
seeped across the usually friendly television screen.
They didn't understand what they were watching, but the
6-year-old boy called it "real yucky." His 5-year-old sister
agreed, especially when the man whose care they were under exposed
his genitals to her.
This wasn't a classic case of stranger danger. It usually isn't
with child sexual abuse. Instead, the enemy is typically from
within-within our hearts, within our homes, within our trust.
The children knew the man. He was their aunt's boyfriend. They
didn't like him.
Two months passed before his name came up while their mother
cooked them breakfast in their Chicago home, just before Christmas
"Why don't you like him?" the mother asked.
They explained as best they could. The mother was dumbfounded.
The father, too.
The parents called police, filled out a report and officers
spoke with the children. The next day the family was contacted by a
worker from the Chicago Children's Advocacy Center.
"We had never heard of the center before," explains the mother,
whose name is not being revealed for privacy reasons. "But if it
wasn't for the staff at the center, we wouldn't have known what to
do next. They explained everything in great detail so we knew what
The Chicago Children's Advocacy Center, or CCAC, is a sort of
one-stop shopping for healing families whose children are victims
of sexual, physical or psychological abuse.
The child-friendly, multi-colored center offers families access
to police, doctors, family advocates, mental health counselors,
forensic interviewers, the courts and a street-savvy staff. In all,
roughly 130 professionals under the same roof.
Before the center opened its doors in 2001, child victims
typically had to tell and retell their story at least a dozen times
to various adults in authority. For instance, their teacher, a
school counselor, a nurse, a police officer, a doctor, a lawyer, a
social worker, a judge, and so on.
Each time reliving the horror of their abuse.
Sometimes, this process took weeks. Other times, months. Cases
dragged through the court system with a prosecution rate of 10
percent. The conviction rate was even more disappointing.
"It was an extremely inefficient system," says Theresa Olson,
the CCAC's chief external affairs officer.
The center, located in a nondescript building on South Damen
Avenue, changed all that. The average time from the initial abuse
report to a child interview is five days.
Child victims are now interviewed once by a trained professional
in a kid-cozy environment through a series of gentle, non-leading
questions. The recorded interview is conducted behind a two-way
mirror in the presence of the Chicago Police Department, the Cook
County State's Attorney's Office, and the Illinois Department of
Children and Family Services.
"I usually interview a child alone, without their parent," says
Rebekah Stevenson, an interviewer. "Sometimes a child is afraid of
the parent's reaction to what they say. But it's often the first
step in their healing."
Stevenson typically begins the interview as a free-flowing
conversation before delving into more weighty issues or the abuse
"Tell me about school or your favorite hobbies," she will ask
kids while looking for nonverbal cues, body language and things
that are not voiced.
Some interviews last five minutes. Others linger for an hour and
a half. Once in a while, the child will ask to hold her hand. Or
for a hug. During one interview with a girl, Stevenson had to read
into the consistent lack of eye contact. She offers a few water
fountain breaks and constant reassurance.
"You're not in trouble at all with me," she tells the Latina
girl in Spanish.
The Chicago family visited the center a bit warily, but the
staff immediately calmed their concerns.
Both of the young children soon played with the center's
resident dog, Polly, a yellow lab that's part of its "canine
"It really set the tone for our visit," the mom says.
The 24,000-square-foot building was built specifically with kids
in mind, from the lower windows and sun-splashed hallways to the
decorated doorways and protected playground courtyard outside.
Soft pastel colors adorn the walls. Kid-friendly posters welcome
strangers. An inchworm wearing glasses is on the door to an
interview room. A box of Kleenex rests on a nearby table, for
"Come on sweetheart," a staff member tells a teenage girl who's
waiting for a doctor appointment. "It's OK."
Afternoons and evenings are busier than mornings, after kids get
out of school and parents leave work. On this day, the staff will
see 10 families and 12 cases, but dozens more are in the works.
The center handles more than 2,000 cases each year, and 20,000
children have been referred here since 2001. The demographic of
kids here reflects that of many Chicago Public Schools: 60 percent
black, 30 percent Hispanic and 10 percent white.
There are more cases of child abuse in this country in any given
year than the combined diagnoses of cancer and diabetes patients,
Olson says. Most victims of sexual molestation are not old enough
to even spell sexual molestation.
In Chicago alone, an estimated 3,200 incidents of child sex
abuse are not reported each year. Abused kids are 59 percent more
likely to be arrested, 66 percent more likely to use drugs, and 30
percent more likely to be abusive as adults, Olson says.
"Obviously, it's a lifetime sentence for all the victims," says
Chicago Police Lt. Jack Connelly, who works as a supervisor at the
CCAC. "We can never erase that."
Connelly, who oversees 30 detectives, says some officers simply
can't handle working here. They would prefer working, say, homicide
"You can't bond with a dead body but, here, you can sure bond
with these little kids," explains Connelly, who's been here since
day one. "Plus, child sex abuse work is not a 9 to 5 kind of job.
These officers are the best of the best here."
In the old days, cops would interview abused, scared kids in the
family's home, even if the abuser was on the premises but in a
different room, he says.
Cops also had to play phone tag with attorneys, doctors, and
social workers. Under the CCAC roof, everyone knows everyone and
this warm atmosphere trickles down to families and victims.
"It's far less intimidating for them, and you'll never see a
perpetrator walking down a hallway in handcuffs, like you may see
at a big, cold police station," he says.
The center is one of the largest of its kind in the country,
with an annual budget of $4.5 million, funded mostly by government
sources and also private donations.
"There is no glamour in this job," says Char Rivette, the
center's executive director. "You need to find ways to separate
your work here from your personal life."
The center doesn't have many "C.S.I. moments," referring to
open-and-shut cases that get wrapped up in a speedy, tidy fashion,
says Dr. Michele Lorand, one of a handful of certified child abuse
pediatricians from Cook County Health & Hospitals System.
"All children have a natural tendency to want to please adults
in their environment," Lorand says in between patients. "This is
something that abusers play off of."
Lorand is a 22-year veteran who sees roughly six kids a day,
although one day she handled 15 cases.
"One of the first things we do is reassure the kids that they're
normal," she says. "Sex abuse doesn't happen in a vacuum. There are
often other things going on in the home-drugs, domestic violence,
guns in the home."
Parents visiting here do a lot of "Monday morning
quarterbacking" after finding out their child was abused, Lorand
says: Who did it? When? Why? Where was I? What should I have done
The Chicago parents did, too.
The father regrets not making a better parenting decision about
whose care he left his children in. If there is one piece of advice
he wants to tell parents, it's to know exactly who is with your
"Our kids will never forget what happened to them," the father
The mom adds: "They know now what is right and what is
In their case, the perpetrator has been arrested, charges have
been filed, and he is in jail. When he gets out of jail, the
parents will file a restraining order.
"Our kids walked out of the center relieved, which is all we
could ask for," the father says.
Rebecca Alten, the same staff member who first met the family,
continues to check on them with regular follow-up phone calls.
"I appreciate that gesture beyond words," the mother says.
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