Community Against Violence (CAV) has been providing services for children and families affected by domestic and sexual violence in Taos County since 1978. A critical program that increases safety for children and families is CAV’s Northern New Mexico Children’s Advocacy Center (NNMCAC).
The NNMCAC is where children and vulnerable adults who are suspected to have been abused or neglected can come to share what happened in a specialized forensic interview as part of the investigative process.
This program, formerly known as the Taos Children’s Saferoom, began in Taos County in 1997 when CAV staff recognized a need for a confidential, child-friendly place where children and vulnerable adults could be safely interviewed about suspected abuse — or where law enforcement, child protective services, prosecution, and medical and advocacy professionals could coordinate their efforts on behalf of the children.
“There was no other program like this and I knew there was a huge need,” said Kat Duff, one of NNMCAC’s first directors.
In 2000, the program expanded its service area to cover the entire Eighth Judicial District of Taos, Colfax and Union counties.
“The specialized interview for children and adults means that they don’t have to go through the additional trauma of being interviewed over and over again by each of the different responding agencies,” said Executive Director Malinda Williams, who has been with CAV since 1994.
In 2005, the NNMCAC became the first such program in New Mexico to achieve national accreditation from the National Children’s Alliance, an organization that supports child advocacy centers. Soon, the program widened its reach to encompass adults with developmental disabilities and dementia.
“Before this program, children would be expected to be interviewed numerous times by the police, by social services and then in court, usually by people who did not understand cognitive levels or how trauma affects a person’s ability to recount their experiences,” said Program Director Julie Kay Vigil-Romero.
The program has continued to expand and now includes Río Arriba, Mora, San Miguel and Guadalupe counties. It also provides services to the Pueblos of Taos, Picuris, Ohkay Owingeh and other pueblos when requested. Its main offices are in Taos with satellites in Raton and Las Vegas. Throughout the service area, the NNMCAC expects to serve 200 children this year.
To lessen the child and family’s stress, the Taos-based interviewers travel to the site nearest the victim’s home, and locally based advocates link children, adults and their families with services for medical, counseling, case management and legal support.
“These services are for both the victims and their protective caretakers,” said Williams. “They are offered support to get through this difficult time in their lives.”
The whole process begins when law enforcement or child protective services opens an investigation into suspected cases of abuse or neglect of a child or adult with disabilities. When an investigation is initiated, those officials contact NNMCAC to conduct an interview. Personnel are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to provide interviews at the main site at CAV in Taos and at satellite offices in Raton and Las Vegas.
“They know that when they make the call, we will be there,” said Vigil-Romero, who has been at CAV for 11 years. “That trust between us and law enforcement is critical to the victim’s welfare.”
Interviewing a person about a traumatic experience of sexual/physical abuse is a
delicate and daunting task. At each NNMCAC site, there are specific interview rooms for children, equipped with toys, play areas and stuffed animals to help them feel more at ease.
“It’s important that our interviewers can talk in the child’s language and at their developmental level so they feel as comfortable as possible,” Williams said.
This forensic interview limits “re-traumatization” of the victims and provides evidence that helps prosecutors build a case in court. An interview can contribute crucial corroborating evidence for the district attorney, and interviewers can testify about the interview in court.
Oftentimes, an interview of a child or vulnerable adult prompts other family members to speak up about violence: “After
an interview, we often hear from
parents that they experienced abuse as children, and we want to stop the cycle and keep from passing it on to future generations,” said Duff.
“We encourage the community to talk about abuse,” said Williams. “It’s a big secret in most communities, something that’s hidden and never talked about. So we talk openly about children’s safety and how disclosing abuse, assaults or neglect will make all children safer.”
NNMCAC is part of CAV’s expansive array of services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence that include advocacy and case management services; crisis intervention and safety planning; counseling and support groups; parenting classes; Batterer’s Intervention Programs; and prevention and educational programs for the community.
In addition, counselors, attorneys, physicians and other professionals offer their services at no cost or reduced rates, and many businesses donate their services and goods. Volunteers, local donations, sales at the CAV Thrift Store and fundraising supplement funding and grants from various private foundations, corporations, and federal, state and local governments.