EAST NORRITON — The saying goes, it takes a village.
For Leslie Slingsby, executive director of Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center, it couldn’t be more true. Her agency works in a comprehensive manner to aid victims of child abuse.
“It’s a way to have kids come to one place that’s child-sensored, trauma-informed, so that they can get the help that they need,” Slingsby said. “And it really helps [by] bringing all of these experts together to help make informed decisions about how to best help that kid, but also keep that offender accountable for his or her actions against the child.”
Those experts are forensic interviewers, social services workers, trauma therapists, law enforcement officers, and representatives from the district attorney’s office.
Established in 2009, the center has 19 staff members and roughly 150 partners across the varying areas of expertise throughout Montgomery County to work with around 600 children per year, whose ages range from 2-to-17 years old. She added there are instances where the center will assist older adults with disabilities.
“It’s a holistic approach to how we look at child abuse cases, and while we care very much about keeping offenders accountable, we also always have that child’s best interest in mind at all times,” she said. “So all of our decisions are based on what’s the best healing practices for this child.”
So how does it work? Slingsby said when “respond[ing] to allegations of serious physical abuse, serious neglect or sexual abuse,” a child will come to the facility, located at 180 W. Germantown Pike, Suite 1, in East Norriton.
He or she will then speak with one of the center’s forensic interviewers while an assembled team of various health and safety professionals watch the interview from another room as they attempt to learn more about the child’s situation, threats to their safety or additional information needed for prosecutorial purposes, according to Slingsby.
She added that Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center’s overarching goal is to ensure they have the required tools to make sure the child is safe and in the best care possible.
“If something happened to your child anywhere in Montgomery County, they would come through the same multidisciplinary approach and process,” Slingsby said.
While Slingsby and her team work to reach hundreds of children, the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered the center’s ability to progress at the same numbers as in recent years.
“We’ve definitely had a reduction in the number of cases because kids aren’t seeing mandated reporters anymore,” she said.
As many of Montgomery County’s 22 public schools have virtual learning options to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, children aren’t getting that in-person interaction with teachers and educational staff members who are trusted allies in the fight against child abuse.
“We have a large percentage of our reports that came from school personnel,” Slingsby said. Teachers, counselors, we don’t have those same adults who mandate report abuse in children’s lives as much as they were before COVID.”
These trusted professionals are “mandated by law that they have to report if they have a suspicion of child abuse,” according to Slingsby, who added that those reports will be inputted to ChildLine, a youth counseling service in Pennsylvania. The reports would then reach Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center.
Slinsby cited increased instances of child and domestic abuse during periods of “increased stress,” which include a negative economic climate and financial strain.
“The problem is we think it’s happening, but there are not those individuals who are seeing children, and having those suspicions and reporting the abuse,” she said. “So that’s why our numbers are going down right now.”
In order to adapt to the difficult landscape that is the COVID-19 pandemic, Slingby said her team is working on outreach methods. Although, admittedly there have been some challenges to develop a new system.
“...We're trying to figure things out a little bit differently … this school year by reaching out to kids directly and saying, ‘if you feel unsafe, if you have a friend that feels unsafe you can reach out for help, and there are people out there to help you, and that you’re not alone,’ but it’s hard,” she said.
Despite unexpected obstacles associated with this year’s public health crisis, Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center has continued to adapt to help those “who’ve experienced physical and sexual abuse, as well as witnessed horrific crimes” in Montgomery County, Slingsby said.
“I think we’re able to respond faster and get them the help that they need, but at the same time, get the information from the child and the family to keep that offender accountable,” she said. “So I think that our system has improved. I think the resiliency in healing the children and the families who come through our agency, I think that’s probably our biggest claim to fame.”
For more information about the Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center, call 484-687-2990 or visit missionkidscac.org.