Until last year, all sexually abused children in Orange County were shunted from police stations to emergency rooms to therapists’ offices, places where they were subjected to up to 25 different interrogations. But now, thanks to the Child Abuse Services Team in Orange, about 50 molested children a month have a kinder alternative.
CAST is a public-private partnership that specializes in reducing institutional trauma that can cause further damage and sometimes permanently scar young children who are already reeling from abuse. Since it was started in March, 1989, the agency--which has medical, legal and social services--has reduced the number of interrogations and created a warm, welcoming place for children as young as 6 months old. Originally funded by the Board of Supervisors and private agencies, CAST serves 10 Orange County law enforcement jurisdictions and is now seeking money and land for a second facility to expand crisis-intervention services countywide. With a new site, CAST officials say they can double their case load to 100 children a month.
CAST program director Cathy Campbell said more than 700 calls alleging child sexual abuse come into the Orange County Child Abuse Registry each month. Of those cases requiring further investigation, most victims still go to hospital emergency rooms and police stations, where they are barraged by frightening sights and sounds and treated by people who may not understand children’s special needs.
Others, most of whom are girls under age 6, are brought to the Orangewood Children’s Home by police or social workers, where CAST has 5,000 square feet of space. Sixty-five “advocates"--volunteers whose role is to make the child feel comfortable and safe--care for the children in one of two rose-carpeted playrooms that house comfortable furniture, televisions and a vast array of donated toys.
On a table in one of the playrooms was a card from an 8-year-old girl who was molested by her mother’s boyfriend. On the outside, she drew a rainbow, a heart, a sun and a family holding hands with a CAST therapist. Inside, in pink crayon, the card reads: “Thank you for making me feel happy inside and being my friend.”
In a typical case, an advocate will attend to the child while the in-house CAST team of social workers, police, therapists, medical personnel and a representative of the district attorney’s office meet to discuss the case. Issues they discuss include possible criminal charges against the alleged abuser, the child’s upcoming interview, medical examinations, investigative strategies, therapy and need for protective custody. Depending on their determinations, an abused child might be taken to an interview room for questioning by a social worker, who uses dolls and other props. The rest of the CAST team observes the interview through a one-way mirror and communicates with the interviewer if necessary, thereby reducing the number of times the child has to tell the story.