Nestled in northeast Minnesota, child advocates at First Witness Child Advocacy Center are asking themselves what their work in child advocacy really means. First Witness, located in Duluth, has long produced trainings, guides, and child advocacy programming that have become a strong model for protecting children and families before, during, and after allegations of abuse.
First Witness got its start in the early 1990’s when a new movement toward child advocacy centers was underway nationally. In 1993 the Junior League of Duluth helped fund and construct First Witness at their West 5th Street location. First Witness has been led for six years by Executive Director Beth Olson. Olson shares the impetus for First Witness was a “group of advocates and team members who were not happy about how we were responding to child abuse.”
“Most [abuse response] systems are in place to get better investigations and convictions, and we do serve the system in that way, but they don’t often ask questions about how and what really reduces trauma and how to keep families together,” she says. Olson explains it’s easy for any organization to hand out a survey and ask for feedback, but it’s not useful unless you actually change your own processes and procedures.
First Witness has since conducted forensic interviews of thousands of children. “It’s about how we talk – and listen – to families,” says Olson. She adds, “The thing that we’re most proud of is knowing we’ve adopted a philosophy where children and families tell us what they need and that drives our programming.”
First Witness has also grown into a leader in child advocacy training and investigation work. Their trainings help educate hundreds of multi-disciplinary team members like child advocates, forensic interviewers, law enforcement, and others about how to react to more than just child abuse investigations.
Olson says, “We’ve really flipped the tables. We focus on victim advocacy and investigations equally, for instance, because advocates are going into their homes and working with families as they navigate courts and social services”. For example, victim advocates in other places often can’t help people through custody or divorce courts because of legal or procedural limitations, which has huge impacts on children and families. That’s where First Witness, says Olson, “responds to all those needs”.
We’ve really flipped the tables. We focus on victim advocacy and investigations equally, for instance, because advocates are who works with kids and families by going into their homes and working with families as they navigate courts and social services
Minnesota still lags in covering the state with child advocacy centers. But where other states may have coverage, the focus there may still be just on investigations and not holistically helping a child and family heal after disclosure of abuse. Olson believes, “One of the things unique about Minnesota is that we haven’t grown really quickly and that’s good and bad. Sometimes, as organizations like CACs grow quickly they adopt blanket procedures without asking if they’re really good ideas. Here we’re asking a lot of critical and hard questions across Minnesota. For instance, we’re looking at how we just talk to families. We’re constantly looking for different ways to do that here in Duluth and Minnesota.”
More locally in Duluth, Olson commends what she describes as “a coordinated community response” that exists when sexual or physical abuse is suspected or disclosed for children and adults alike. “We’ve asked how to make sure every system, every professional, was coordinated and held accountable to the people they’re serving,” says Olson, adding, “many CACs, as one example, have just become service centers where they know they do hundreds of interviews a year, but may not know what families are really going through.”
“Duluth has such a rich history of anti-violence work, with a lot of grounded philosophy in domestic violence,” says Olson. Thinking of Minnesota as a whole, “I think if Minnesota really wanted to put kids first, we could. If I could wave a magic wand, we’d just say ‘whatever it takes to keep kids safe and keep families together’ we’d be willing to do it. If that meant lower caseloads for caseworkers, we’d do it. That’s more of an ideological shift. When we did get people talking about it and started to talk to the Minnesota Legislature about funding, there were [Legislators] who never thought about these issues.”
Olson has just been elected to her own seat on the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners, but will remain Executive Director of First Witness. However, First Witness will continue to lead anti-violence thinking, CAC trainings, and urging people to think about children and families beyond just the initial disclosure of abuse.
To learn more about First Witness, visit www.firstwitness.org.