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Children Need Not Suffer, Say Crow Creek Advocates

Photo of community members dancing at a powwow.
Community members dance at the powwow.

The signs that there was a child abuse problem in the community were there. In addition, children who were victims of abuse had to travel for a whole day to get medical attention or psychological counseling, and child victims often returned years after they were first treated, showing signs of additional abuse.

"The need wasn't being met," recalls Lisa Thompson, Executive Director of Wiconi Wawokiya, Inc., which runs Children's Safe Place, the first child advocacy center (CAC) in Indian country. The center is located on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota, where about 3,500 people live. It is the first and only tribal CAC that is certified by the National Children's Alliance. It serves both Native and non-Native children alike.

In mainstream child advocacy centers, children are interviewed on average seven to nine times following an incident of sexual or other physical abuse. Before the center opened, Indian children were lucky to be interviewed once, Thompson said. Between the long court processes and federal bureaucracy, valuable information was lost and children were missing out on important therapeutic help.

The time for change came as Thompson, who had received training about CACs, started the Children's Safe Place in 1998. At the center, which serves about 100 children per year, Indian children are medically examined and evaluated when child abuse is suspected. The medical examiner can use the center's telemedicine equipment to consult with other physicians about forensic medical evidence without taking the child away from the community. The center also sends staff to different grade levels in the schools to teach about prevention and recognition of abuse.

Children also can be interviewed at the center. Tribal and federal investigators come to the center to talk with children and their families in a child-centered and culturally specific setting that encourages victim safety and healing. Counseling is provided as well.

Wiconi Wawokiya, which means "helping families," works in the community in different capacities. It advocated for mandatory arrest of domestic violence offenders and saw success when the tribe passed such a law in 1997. Offenders are now arrested and removed from their homes when the police arrive.

Just by the way it operates, the center is responding to the community's needs. A tribal, federal, and state multidisciplinary team that includes federal prosecutors, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and representatives from state social services and local law enforcement meets monthly to discuss center operations and planning. "It's the cornerstone of our work," Thompson said of the team. "Without them, we wouldn't be where we are now."

Photo of a children’s playroom at the Child Advocacy Center.
Children have room to play at the Child Advocacy Center.

Sharing information and ideas is essential to be successful, she explained. It's also empowering to victims to know that the prosecutors believe their stories and are working on their behalf.

Getting the word out and educating the community can be particularly challenging, said Thompson. The staff realized that if you are in an abusive situation, you are not likely to just come to the center, she said.

"Then we thought, let's use our own culture to draw people in," Thompson said. Now, one of the more successful center programs is a powwow, where the community gathers to socialize and dance and the center educates people about domestic violence and child abuse.

In addition to a multidisciplinary team and an understanding of how to incorporate the culture, a successful program needs leadership and people who are passionate about the issue, Thompson said.

"No matter what, we're here," she said. "We believe in what we do and we're going to stand up for victims."

For further information, contact:

Lisa Thompson
Executive Director

Children Need Not Suffer, Say Crow Creek Advocates

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