By Briana Vannozzi
Roughly 12,000 New Jersey children fall victim to some form of abuse every year. For each case reported, advocates say many more are undocumented.
“This is about protecting the child and allowing them to restore their life to as normal as possible,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Sweeney is introducing a bill that sets aside $10 million to create a “Child Advocacy Center-Multidisciplinary Team Fund.” It’s a long title for a simple purpose — create a statewide system of child abuse prevention services.
“There are best practices used that I want to see replicated throughout the state. When I went and saw Wynona Lipman’s house, I said how come this doesn’t exist in every county in the state?” Sweeney asked.
Sweeney wants Wynona’s House in Newark, which is an example of a child advocacy center, or CAC, to serve as the model for all other counties. It coordinates services like law enforcement, psychologists, doctors and victim support all under one roof.
“At Wynona’s House, we have a child focused approach to what happened. It’s not a prosecutor focus, it’s not a social worker focus. It’s a child centered focus on how not to re-traumatize children who have already been traumatized,” said Wynona’s House founder Nancy Erika Smith.
“Currently abused children in nine counties have access to the services of an accredited CAC. However this means that abused children in 12 counties do not have access to this comprehensive care,” said New Jersey Children’s Alliance Chapter Coordinator Nydia Monagas.
“It doesn’t have to be bricks and mortar, but we want the same standard in all 21 counties,” Sweeney said.
All counties are required to have a board overseeing child protection and victim services. The funding would extend that and allow for more. Advocates say CACs are shown to save over $1,000 per case in communities where they’re located.
“From a solely economic perspective, if we invest in their healing now we will save ourselves from having to pay for the longterm social, health and emotional difficulties associated with child abuse at a later time. The total lifetime estimated cost related to just one year of confirmed cases of child maltreatment is approximately $124 billion,” Monagas said.
The group is urging the Legislature to act now.
“We look at adults who are survivors of abuse and rape and their lives have been destroyed and they rarely if ever recover completely,” said Sen. Joe Vitale.
The bill has already passed out of committee and advocates believe it has a fighting chance if it lands on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk.