State and community agencies dedicated to helping children who are victims of abuse gathered Tuesday afternoon for the grand opening of a children’s advocacy center.
The Yellowstone Valley Children’s Advocacy Center, at 3021 Third Ave. N. in the Center for Children and Families building, emphasizes the coordination of investigation and intervention services by bringing together professionals and agencies as a team to help victims of child abuse.
“The community agencies and professionals work together to reduce the trauma child victims of abuse experience by providing a sensitive, safe and child-friendly environment,” said Lynelle Amen, CAC’s coordinator.
The center is a product of a coalition of The Center for Children and Families, the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office, the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, the Billings and Laurel police departments, the Child and Family Services Division and Billings Clinic.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said the Center’s model has been used for decades across the country and has proven successful.
“You can’t overestimate the impact the Children’s Advocacy Center will have on children and families as well as the community,” Fox said. “It’s a hard thing to quantify, but the difference these professionals make is nothing short of amazing.”
Fox said child abuse is a community problem that requires community solutions. “And we can’t do this important work without a safe place,” he said.
“The center creates a ripple effect with early intervention."
When abuse occurs, CAP coordinates a community response to bring healing, hope and justice to children and their families, Amen said.
The center provides a neutral facility — separate from state agencies involved in the intervention process — and is designed to create a sense of safety for victims.
The space was designed to help streamline the victim’s interview process with a forensic interview room that is equipped with hidden cameras that feed to a separate room where prosecutors and law enforcement personnel can observe.
"Children prior to advocacy centers would have to tell their story multiple times — to the doctor, Children and Family Services workers, law enforcement,” Amen said. “Now they only have to tell it once, which is less traumatic for them. It also serves as a more efficient way of gathering the evidence.”
The center has performed 48 forensic interviews since July and has served about 40 families.
“With the resources under one roof, children will not have to go far to get the resources they need,” Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said.
Mayor Tom Hanel emphasized that children are a community’s most valuable asset.
“There is nothing more valuable than our children,” Hanel said. “They are the future, and we must be their advocates.”
Sheriff Mike Linder said the center serves as a valuable resource for law enforcement.
“These services make things safer and more efficient for law agencies to work together to be the best advocates we can for children,” Linder said.
Fox encouraged those gathered Tuesday to push the Legislature to pass bills bolstering the center's work.
“We have to double our efforts day in and day out to make sure the laws fit,” Fox said. “We have to let our Legislature know what’s working and what isn’t.”
One bill, House Bill 74, would mandate that the Department of Family Services immediately notifies law enforcement of suspected crimes against children.
Senate Bill 198 would increase the maximum penalty for criminals who assault children younger than 3 years old.