The physical or sexual abuse of a child is an unconscionable crime. As parents, it is our worst nightmare — a fear that keeps us awake at night each time we hear the news of another predator apprehended in our communities.
For children whose innocence has been shattered by violence and families whose lives have been thrown into chaos by unthinkable tragedy, Children's Advocacy Centers are a refuge. Bringing together a coordinated team of child-focused professionals and criminal investigators, these facilities secure the evidence needed to bring abusers to justice without re-traumatizing child victims.
Stepping into a Children's Advocacy Center, it's almost possible to forget the horrors that bring children and families through the doors. The walls are brightly colored, the waiting room filled with cartoon pictures and children's toys. Forensic interviews are conducted by professional staff wearing plain clothes — not police uniforms — and are structured in a way that is both compassionate and effective.
Despite their success in communities in Delaware, Alabama, and across the country, and despite strong support on both sides of the aisle, these centers have faced an uncertain future. Congress has not reauthorized the Victims of Child Abuse Act – the law that provides federal support for Children's Advocacy Centers – for nearly a decade, and the President's recent budgets have slashed the funding that allows them to operate.
In December, we joined together – along with Senators Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) – to introduce bipartisan legislation that would reauthorize the Victims of Child Abuse Act and save our nation's Children's Advocacy Centers. Just a few days ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which we both serve, voted unanimously to send this bill to the Senate floor.
Congress must pass this reauthorization because the alternative is a justice system that fails to meet the needs of our most vulnerable children. In the early 1980s, Bud Cramer – an Alabama District Attorney who would later go on to become a U.S. Congressman – observed the ordeal faced by child victims as they navigated the criminal justice system. Social services were not coordinated with the work of law enforcement and prosecutors, forcing children to endure repeated questioning – at police stations, in hospitals, and again in the courtroom – and relive horrifying traumas over and over again.
Together with members of the Huntsville community, Cramer pioneered a new model to better serve child victims. The nation's first Children's Advocacy Center brought all the resources victims and law enforcement needed together under one roof. With one interview, child victims could tell their stories and law enforcement could obtain the testimony required to carry the case forward to trial.
In 1990, Congress passed the Victims of Child Abuse Act to expand on this successful model, and today more than 800 Children's Advocacy Centers serve victims and families nationwide.
Their programs are working. In 2012, Children's Advocacy Centers helped nearly 300,000 kids get the care they needed, and put more of our society's worst criminals behind bars. By consolidating services, Children's Advocacy Centers are even saving taxpayers money.
Our bipartisan reauthorization bill would modestly increase support available for Children's Advocacy Centers, for the first time since 1990, to help centers keep up with growing demands for services and improve training programs for their remarkable staffs of caregivers. State and local governments, as well as private donors, would continue to provide their own funding support. The bill would also provide opportunities to build Children's Advocacy Centers in some of the 1,000 counties that currently lack access to these critical services.
Though we wish our communities didn't need these centers, we know all too well that the evil we have witnessed in our home states exists in big cities and small towns across the country.
No family should have to confront these horrors alone. Children's Advocacy Centers have transformed our nation's response to child abuse, giving families hope in their darkest moments and delivering justice to those who have endured the worst kind of abuse.
We cannot and should not go back to a system that fails the most vulnerable children in our society. It's time to reauthorize the Victims of Child Abuse Act.
(United States Senator Jeff Sessions is the Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee and a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. United States Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) also serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Budget Committee.)