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Interviewer: Teachers, counselors draw battle lines against child abuse

January 11, 2012

Pat Berger, executive director and forensic interviewer for the Western PA CARES for Kids Child Advocacy Center (CAC).

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Teachers and guidance counselors in local schools are at an important starting point in ending the cycle of child abuse, according to Pat Berger, the executive director and forensic interviewer for the Western PA CARES for Kids Child Advocacy Center (CAC).

“They can be the first people a child decides to disclose the abuse to,” she said. “How they get the information can affect the case.”

Monday, Berger spoke to the Punxsutawney Area School Board about the CAC, which is a child-focused program that brings together all the professionals needed to begin appropriate investigations, treatment and prosecution decisions in child abuse cases.

In some cases, a child may disclose abuse, but that information may be taken to numerous different agencies without the proper steps being taken. And then, the case can be in jeopardy of falling through the cracks.

Plus, in order to activate the proper channels for action, the child may face numerous interviews about the same terrible situation.

“Think about your own experiences,” she said. “When you go on vacation, you tell everything,” but the next few times, one might tend to leave out a few details.

“Think about what it’s like for a child who doesn’t want to talk about this (situation) in the first place,” Berger said.

Those who interview the child may have different questions, or different ways of asking them, she said. The child may also interpret the questions in different ways, and in a court setting, his or her answers may sound contradictory.

“As adults, we rely on our knowledge and experiences,” Berger said. “We
forget that kids do not have that same knowledge and experiences.”

At the CAC, the child undergoes one interview with a forensic interviewer. Watching the interview via a monitor are the appropriate people — from the police, the district attorney’s office, CYS, mental health, etc. — who then evaluate the interview and what to do next.

Also, the CAC “looks like a house; it’s child-friendly,” Berger said. “It’s not a scary place. It’s like going to Grandma’s house.”

The child is also told that the interview is recorded, she added.
Because the schools can be a key part of beginning the process to protect a child, Berger said she would like to discuss the CAC during an in-service with teachers.

Board President Gary Conrad asked what a teacher should do if a child comes to him or her. Berger said the teacher should gather enough information to determine that something “may have happened.”

Responding to another question from Conrad, Berger said a student working with the CAC on a senior project — which are now geared toward community and career exploration — could work in areas of increasing local awareness about the center. Due to confidentiality issues, however, a senior project in other areas of the CAC would not be feasible.

The CAC has been active since May 2008, when District Attorney Jeff Burkett applied for and received a one-year start-up grant to develop the center. Since then, the CAC has applied for and received 501(c)(3) non-profit status, and is now a community-based agency.

The CAC serves youngsters ages three to 18, and services are free.

Since May 2008, the CAC has seen 193 cases, Berger said, adding that she has two more interviews scheduled for this week.

For more information about the CAC, call 849-1904 or see www.carescac.org.

In other business Monday:
• Recognizing January as School Board Recognition Month, Superintendent Dr. Keith Wolfe saluted Conrad; Vice-President Francis Molinaro; and board members Jim Baun, Lesa Conner, Roberta Dinsmore, Bob Pascuzzo, Penny Pifer, Melissa Snyder and Jack White for their unpaid work for the district.

• The board expelled three students for the remainder of the 2011-12 school year. They will receive their education through the district’s after-school program.

(Editor’s note: This piece is one in a series of “Familiar Faces Friday” features to be written by Spirit reporter...
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