Local Organizations Offer Complete Care for Abused Children

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

The trauma caused by child abuse and neglect doesn’t end with the incident. These crimes also inflict harm as children must recount what happened again and again.

Shelley Hitzel

This is one reason that Child Advocacy Center of Niagara “provides an array of services in Niagara County,” said Shelley Hitzel, licensed master social worker and executive director of the organization.

CAC of Niagara is the local chapter of a nationwide model. Hitzel explained that creating an organization that offers a complete array of services under one roof prevents children and their families from having to go from place to place around the community for services.

“This reduces the potential risk for recrimination by telling their story over and over,” Hitzel said. “We wrap services around the child in every area they need. It’s a culturally sensitive interview and provides therapeutic medical services and evidence-based therapy onsite. We offer anything that the child may need as a result of the abuse. We want to, as much as possible, mitigate the effect of abuse and help support non offending parents.”

CAC offers a forensic interview, medical exam, acute mental health counseling, referrals for needs such as food, housing and safety and continued support throughout the immediate recovery and legal and court process.

Most children who affected by physical or sexual abuse know the offender. Because it is someone they trust and feel comfortable with, the abuse destroys the children’s framework for understanding how relationships work and how to trust.

CAC also offers community education to children who have not reported abuse. By working in school districts in Niagara County, CAC offers both prevention education on how to stay safe and how to report if they or someone they know needs help.

CAC employs 13 and operates from Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, one of the few hospital-based CACs. One of CAC’s organizational goals for 2023 is to increase its promotion of child abuse prevention among school districts and expand its time with children beyond the initial experience of abuse.

“Like many things health or safety prevention-related, it has to be a cultural, generational change,” Hitzel said. “We’re starting to get this information to children so they understand what child abuse is, help them understand boundaries, healthy sexual development and who are the people they can tell if something is happening to them. The long-term goal is to form a generational standpoint to encourage people to change the narrative and encourage people to speak out and speak up if they’re concerned about child abuse occurring.”

Headquartered in Cheektowaga, Erie County Department of Social Services’ Child Protective Services investigates child abuse and maltreatment and refers families to numerous services in the community to assist families with things that lead to these crimes to prevent risk factors.

“It’s important because we need to protect our children and our community,” said ECDSS First Deputy Commissioner Catie Gavin. “We need to ensure that children can live safely in their own homes and community. Any traumatic incidences can cause long-term issues for children, whether PTSD or school issues and other long-term impacts.”

She added that the organization strives to interrupt the cycle of generational abuse while respecting for family culture and values. The organization contracts with schools, daycares and other organizations for preventative and foster care work.

“Child abuse prevention is not an issue solely for the Department of Social Services or even agencies that we contract with,” Gavin said. “It’s a community issue. Everyone should feel empowered to be kind and reach out to people who they believe are stressed or they believe are at risk for child abuse or maltreatment.”

She believes that in some cases, knowing that others care and receiving some emotional support could help prevent child abuse.

ECDSS also makes it clear that although poverty itself is not child abuse or maltreatment, programs are available to relieve the stressors caused by poverty and that this can help improve the chances of successful parenting.

“If a parent refuses to access those programs, we will look at it that it may be neglect, but it may be not knowing where to get help and how to advocate for themselves to get out of that situation,” Gavin said.

Child abuse and neglect are not only problems of low-income families. Gavin stressed that every socioeconomic group can experience these issues and that her organization is “very busy throughout Erie County.”

ECDSS employs 400 in a variety of roles, from casework to support staff, along with contracting with nonprofits throughout the county. The department handles 10,000 to 12,000 allegation cases of child abuse or neglect annually.