Minnesota CACs look to research, not shortcuts, in expanding CAC services

Jan Dunn

As CACs have grown from Huntsville, Alabama’s first center in the country in 1985 to over 850 today, the National Children’s Alliance has created accreditation standards for CACs to maintain consistency and quality. Those standards have helped raise the bar on what, exactly, the “advocacy” part of “child advocacy center” means.

Jan Dunn, the Director of Accreditation at the National Children’s Alliance, has helped shepherd in new and continually revised standards for two decades. Dunn recalls, “The first accreditation standards were developed in 2000 as a minimum standard and not really meant to be a best practice. It was to ensure the integrity of the CAC model and response for children and families.” Dunn explains further, saying, “We thought they were an important guide for planning and preparation for intervention after abuse that’s evidence-based. A lot of people thought this was a better way to do this. Research shows us it’s better.”

Minnesota CACs are still developing, and coverage is expanding as CACs in the land of 10,000 lakes grow with an eye towards high-quality, high-value programming based on research and fact. Minnesota’s growth today means Centers can expand with accreditation in mind. Instead of merely feeding the judicial system with evidence for prosecutions, Minnesota’s CACs are working to help children and families before, during, and after allegations of abuse are made – exactly what the NCA’s accreditation standards promote.

As Dunn explains, the National Children’s Alliance firmly believes that accreditation brings five valuable benefits. “First, standards adhere CACs to evidence-based practices. Second, it opens them up to more funding opportunities, particularly from federal and state governments. Three, CACs get to belong to a movement with an expansive amount of resources and peer training, technical assistance, and collaboration. Fourth, training and management resources for organizations committed to leading-edge responses and following trends in the maltreatment world. Fifth, and lastly, accredited members are supported by the NCA’s voice in Washington which helps shape federal and state legislation across the country.”

To become accredited, CACs compile demographic and programming data and establish protocols and processes for their work. In all, there are ten essential standards about how a CAC’s team, diversity, interviews, victim support and advocacy, medical and mental evaluations, case review and tracking, capacity, and environment operate.

CACs also undergo a site review. “This is important,” says Dunn. “The reason for site reviews is to protect fidelity of the movement and standards.” Site reviews are conducted on-site at a CAC by other CAC professionals from across the country. “Having peer reviewers in all the different models represent different CAC capacities [rural, nonprofit, hospital, tribal, urban, etc.]. We send people out to do reviews that understand the standards and the models being reviewed,” says Dunn.

The whole process takes time and money to compile all the necessary pieces of data, processes, and services. Critics argue CACs may struggle to justify the time and effort in pursuing accreditation, but Dunn disagrees, saying, “Funding builds funding.” For CACs that achieve accreditation, “They have built a foundation to offer more services to help children and families. It shows that even a moderately sized community is providing services at a level you might expect to find in Chicago or Atlanta,” says Dunn, adding, “They’re hooking into a much larger system that takes what little funding they do have and allows them to become better stewards of those resources.”

Speaking further on costs, Dunn says, “What’s been demonstrated, even at the tiniest CAC serving just 25 kids a year, they still can meet all the standards at a minimum level. They’re not designed to be resource-heavy. It brings people together collaboratively to help children. There’s not a huge difference in cost between a tiny CAC and a big one, barring facility costs.”

Like any large operation that needs to be standardized enough to be consistent but flexible enough to adapt to local needs, the Minnesota Children’s Alliance is helping establish and maintain standards at all twelve Minnesota CACs.

Accreditation and subsequent re-accreditation requires CACs to remember the responsibilities “that may have slipped away or were never thought of,” as Dunn puts it. It also means helping communities recognize there is a minimum viable amount of work and service required to help a child and family fully.

In Minnesota, four CACs are developing, two are Associate Members, and six are accredited by NCA.

NCA accreditation standards are revised every five years with the latest revision completed in 2016. To read the standards visit the NCA’s Standards.