In Baltimore, groups work to care for victims of sexual abuse, bring abusers to justice, and educate the community.
In June 1995, a group of professionals working to prevent child sexual abuse and to deal with its consequences organized a reception to meet each other and exchange ideas. From that reception, the Baltimore Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse was born.
This coalition now includes more than 100 groups, from the Baltimore City Police to Parents Anonymous (including some organizations, like the city school system, that were not set up to work with victims of sexual abuse, but have found themselves doing so). In its first year of existence, the Alliance has helped make significant improvements in abuse prevention, investigation, and after-care. It has also provided a forum for different agencies working with children and offenders to streamline the care they provide.
Twenty years ago, at the beginning of the effort to deal with child sexual abuse, a relatively small number of people were working on the problem, and they were able to discuss issues with relative ease. Since then, however, "we all became more specialized and divided," says Alliance organizer Rus Funk of the Sexual Abuse Treatment Center, a community-based organization that provides treatment for sexual offenders. "Funding sources have also become more specialized, which leads to division and competition for money. But competing isn't going to help us."
At monthly meetings, members are able to share their experiences working with children who are the victims of sexual abuse, assault, or exploitation. Due to confidentiality laws, they cannot talk about individual cases (unless the parties involved sign a release of confidentiality). They can discuss changes that would make each agency's work more effective. In addition, members can report on the latest research about child sexual abuse and exploitation—a huge help for service providers who do not have the time to read every study as it is released. The Alliance also has committees developing policies for prevention and education, criminal justice, investigation, treatment for victims and offenders, and after-care.
The Alliance has prepared a set of standards for intervention that covers reporting, investigation, treatment, and follow-up processes. "We believe we're the first jurisdiction in the country" to publish comprehensive standards, Funk says.
THE FIRST STEP in uninterrupted service for child victims is a reporting and investigative model that minimizes their traumatization. In April, the Alliance helped organize the offices of the police, the state Attorney General, and state protective services to streamline interviews with the child and his or her family. Now rather than having each agency interview the child, one interview is done in the presence of a child advocate.
This change has not only lessened the burden placed on the child, it has also made the investigation more efficient. The average time between the beginning of an investigation and an arrest of the perpetrator used to be 60 days. "Now it's closer to three days," Funk says.
The Alliance's published standards call for a comprehensive prevention and education program. "We must collectively alter the public perception about child sexual offenses to create a culture in which there is 'zero tolerance' for child sexual mistreatment," the guidelines read. "In order to eliminate child sexual abuse and assault, we need to underscore that it is the response-ability of the community as a whole to protect their children."
The Alliance is aware that in order to prevent abuse, it is vital to work with abusers. One of the Alliance's next projects is to improve services for offenders after they have been released from jail or prison. "Right now, when offenders leave lockup, there's nothing for them," Funk says. "In order to keep our community safe, there needs to be better care for offenders."
While the Alliance is adamant about the need to bring sexual offenders to justice, its attitude is marked by compassion. "We would like to see a model established in which there is the message that while the abuse of children will not be tolerated, abusers will be compassionately confronted," reads a draft of the Alliance's mission statement. "The end result will be true prevention of child abuse."
For more information about the Baltimore Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse, contact Michael Cenci at Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland at (410) 669-9000.