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Beau Biden Fellowship and State Resources to Protect Our Most Vulnerable, Our Children

For more than 15 years, I have had the pleasure of working as a prosecutor for the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office.  During that time, I have prosecuted many different crimes and have worked with many different populations.  One of the most rewarding and challenging parts of my career began in 2011 when Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin appointed me chief of the newly-formed Child Abuse Unit (CAU).  The CAU is comprised of talented prosecutors, victim advocates, and support staff working together to help children and their families seek justice for abuses perpetrated upon them. This fall, I had the honor of being selected as the first Beau Biden Foundation fellow working from the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) office in Washington, D.C.  The Foundation’s mission, in honor of the life of former Delaware Attorney General Joseph R. “Beau” Biden, III, seeks to continue his life’s work: ensuring that all children are free from the threat of abuse.  Education, advocacy, and leadership development are the pillars on which this foundation was established.

This fellowship gave me the opportunity to take a step back from prosecuting these extremely difficult cases, work on child protection issues in Washington, D.C., and see things from a very different perspective.  I was able to observe what is being done on a local and national level to prevent these crimes from happening or, at the very least, educate children, their families, and those who work with children about child abuse prevention.  To that end, the training of prosecutors, law enforcement, educators, physicians, clinicians, advocates, and others is essential to a proactive approach to these complex issues.  Additionally, enacting effective state and federal legislation can help ensure children’s rights are protected and ensure those who commit these terrible crimes are held accountable.

Over the course of several weeks, I met and spoke with many different professionals from various organizations who have dedicated their time, many their careers, to protecting children around the country and the world.  These organizations include but were not limited to: NAAG, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC); Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children; Safe Shores; Shared Hope International; American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP); Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA); The Children’s National Medical Center; the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse at NDAA; Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA); Stop Child Abuse Now (SCAN); District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Dept.; the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ); National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA); U.S. Attorney’s Office (DC); and Office of Attorney General (DC).   From this unique perspective, I gained an even greater appreciation for the work we do while acknowledging the immense undertaking that protecting children and preventing child abuse and exploitation is.

During my fellowship, I was invited to Alexandria, Va., to train at NCMEC headquarters.  During this training process, I met with their different teams and saw how all of these diverse and unique programs play an integral role in finding and protecting children.1  As enumerated in 42 U.S.C § 5773(b), NCMEC receives federal funding to help perform 22 specific functions pertaining to missing and exploited children.2  Some of these functions include: maintaining and operating a national resource center and information clearinghouse for missing and exploited children; operating a 24-hour hotline for reports of missing children and updates on ongoing cases; providing technical assistance and training to families, victims, law enforcement agencies, and the public on issues related to missing and exploited children; operating a CyberTipline; and coordinating with families and child welfare and law enforcement agencies in reporting children missing from the foster care system. Its technology and outreach programs are vast and easily accessible. 

NCMEC operates two essential programs in furtherance of its mission to help find missing children, reduce child sexual exploitation, and prevent future victimization.  NCMEC’s CyberTipline is the central mechanism for the public and Electronic Service Providers (ESPs) to report apparent child sexual exploitation.  Federal law requires that ESPs report to NCMEC apparent child pornography discovered on their systems.3 As of December 2016, the CyberTipline has received over 16 million reports, with over 8.2 million reports for just 2016 alone.  NCMEC also works to help address the unique and challenging issues raised by children missing from care. The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act recently passed by Congress required that, by 2016, social workers must report any child missing from the state foster care system to police and to NCMEC.4  This legislation acknowledges the harsh reality that, as of 2015, one in five of those endangered runaways reported to NCMEC were likely victims of sex trafficking.  In fact, 74 percent of those missing children reported to NCMEC who were likely to be victims of sex trafficking, had been in the care of Child Protective Services.5  Since it is inevitable that, over time, there will be changes in these state agencies, NCMEC has developed a case management system which serves as a national clearinghouse to maintain continuity which provides easy access to support for all of these agencies.  This continuity allows law enforcement and those whose job it is to protect children to identify children that may be at risk and more quickly assess their needs.  Although NCMEC has been utilized by families, victims, international, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and the public, others have yet to take advantage of this national clearinghouse and its no-cost national training and resources aimed to help recover missing children and reduce child sexual exploitation.

National training is also provided by NAAG through its National Attorneys General Training and Research Institute (NAGTRI).  NAAG recognizes that attorneys general around the country may have different powers and duties but all have unique leadership roles in their respective states that extend far beyond their offices to local district attorneys and local county prosecutors.6  To this end, NAGTRI is working to expand its training to meet the jurisdictional needs of attorneys general as well as their needs as national and international law enforcement leaders. This will enable NAGTRI to reach a wider audience on a myriad of issues and training topics including child abuse, exploitation, and trafficking.7    These trainings will enable more effective prosecution across the country as well as internationally.

The issue of sex trafficking was on Attorney General Biden’s radar throughout his eight-year tenure.  Nothing was more important to Beau Biden than protecting those whose voices were marginalized, those who had lost their power or never had any power at all. “Human trafficking takes place in the shadows, but the devastating effects on victims, families and communities are plain,” said Biden.8  “Because these crimes occur without regard to local, state and even national boundaries, it is essential that we stand together across those borders to fight trafficking and help victims heal.”9  Crossing those borders to first recognize and, ultimately, combat sex trafficking begins with training all of those individuals who work with children.

While in Virginia, I also took the opportunity to visit with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA).  Their Child Abuse Prosecution Project, a Victims of Crime Act-funded project through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was started approximately two years ago and also offers free training and technical assistance to child abuse prosecutors and their multidisciplinary teams.  Their access to educational webinars and referrals to medical experts in the field of child abuse/neglect and legal research is another valuable resource. 

There are many state and local agencies helping in the fight against child abuse and working towards prevention.  I attended an informational open house at Safe Shores, the District of Columbia Children’s Advocacy Center (CACs), where victims of suspected child abuse can be interviewed by trained forensic interviewers.10  As with all CACs around the country Safe Shores utilizes a multidisciplinary team (MDT) approach towards child abuse/prevention.  This approach minimizes the number of interviews a child victim must give to different agencies, decreasing the trauma to the child.  The MDT meetings at the Children’s National Medical Center allow for different disciplines/agencies to meet and discuss neglect and physical and sexual abuse cases.  This team approach provides a more effective way to help keep children safe, identify their needs, and ultimately help to prosecute those who abuse/exploit children.  As part of their educational outreach, Safe Shores offers trainings for those who work with children including the Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children®.11  This evidence-informed prevention program increases knowledge, improves attitudes, and changes child protective behaviors while utilizing a conversational real world approach.12

Another organization helping child victims of abuse that I had the pleasure of meeting was Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA), the Northern Virginia Chapter.13 BACA is an international organization that supports children and their families once criminal charges have been filed and the case is proceeding through the court system.  It was founded by John Paul “Chief” Lilly who is a licensed clinical social worker, play therapist/supervisor, and a part-time faculty member at Brigham Young University.  BACA’s members are men and women bikers whose goal it is to empower children to not feel afraid in the world they live and to lend support while working in conjunction with local and state officials. After extensive background checks and training, two BACA members are assigned as the child’s primary contact.  Some of the services they provide may include: visiting the child at school; accompanying the child to court/parole hearings; transportation to and from therapy sessions; and maintaining a therapy fund for those in need of assistance.  As of the writing of this article, the Rhode Island BACA Chapter is now fully accredited and is working with local officials and agencies in assisting children and their families.

I met with a representative of Stop Child Abuse Now (SCAN) of Northern Virginia who was also trained as a Stewards of Children® facilitator.  This non-profit agency was just one example of how these different organizations can come together for education and the prevention of child abuse. SCAN’s “Safe Babies” initiative was of particular interest. Prosecuting abusive head trauma (AHT) cases, this initiative provides educational tools for new parents on a multitude of issues.  Because of the more often than not tragic results of AHT, helping caregivers and their families through early intervention education cannot be under estimated.            

While at NAAG, I also conducted research in legislative trends in child protection in all 50 states and territories.  The mandatory reporting laws vary from state to state and are often amended. Generally, individuals designated as mandatory reporters have frequent contact with children.  Individuals typically enumerated are: all school personnel, social workers, all health care providers, clinicians, law enforcement officers, and medical examiners. Enumerated lists can often miss individuals who may have knowledge of suspected abuse or neglect of child.  A review of the mandatory reporting laws recently updated in 2016 and provided by the National District Attorneys Association indicates that 16 states have amended their laws eliminating these enumerated lists and/or generally designate “any person” having reason to believe a child is being abused or neglected “shall” report suspected abuse or neglect.14   The timing (immediately or within 48 hours), the method (oral or written) and where to report (police department or department of social services) also varies widely from state to state. Moreover, the penalties for failing to comply with these mandates range anywhere from a fine to a misdemeanor criminal offense.   Requiring mandated reporting for anyone who has knowledge of abuse or neglect of a child will help to quickly protect children and remove any threats to their safety.  Broad mandatory reporting laws provide greater protection for children.

State civil statutes of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse is also an area of concern in protecting children.  There is a national trend to extend the civil statute of limitations for the filing of claims for these victims.  More and more states are eliminating the civil statute of limitations for first degree sexual assaults against children or extending the terms of years in which these victims may file a civil action against their abusers.15   According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center and my professional observation, many victims wait to disclose their abuse and, sadly, some never disclose.  These delayed disclosures and an inability to connect how these criminal acts may have affected their lives leave many without recourse. State legislators who regularly introduce these bills recognize what national research has shown time and time again, that those victims of childhood abuse experience long-term emotional and psychological effects.16  Research in this area has found that this type of toxic stress has long-term and serious consequences for millions of people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the foundational research referred to as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, there is a strong relationship between the exposure to abuse/household dysfunction during childhood and multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults.17 Disease conditions including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease all suggest that the impact of adverse childhood experiences on adult health is strong and cumulative.

Recognizing these devastating effects of childhood abuse, the 2015 Status Report on State and Federal Legislative Efforts18 to Prevent Child Abuse found that many states mandate school districts to provide awareness and prevention training on child sexual abuse within their public school systems. Erin’s Law19 and Jenna’s Law20 require that public schools teach children about sexual abuse identification and prevention, with age appropriate materials, and require adults be trained in child sexual abuse. These laws help children, teachers, counselors, and parents to prevent, recognize, and identify child sexual abuse early.21 Also acknowledging that more than 87 million children are involved in school activities provided by child/youth serving organizations staffed by adults each year and 35 million participate in youth sports programs, some states require that coaches and volunteers participate in these educational programs.  Some state statutes also require a task force be established to determine the curriculum and implementation.22  The development and implementation of these educational mandates appears to vary widely. NCMEC’s website provides many educational resources including videos and other interactive materials that can be accessed by educators, parents, teens, and children at any time and at no cost.23 I had the pleasure of speaking with both Jenna Quinn and Erin Merryn during my fellowship discussing the many resources and educational tools available to implement these respective laws.  I look forward to helping these courageous and inspirational women in the future to ensure that once state legislation is passed it is also effectively implemented.   

My fellowship with the Beau Biden Foundation was an eye-opening experience. I was able to learn of the many varied resources that are available to all of us who work in the field of child abuse prevention and education.  Although every state has its own structure, needs, and concerns, learning where those resources exist and possibly combining them, is a great starting point.  Some state’s needs are universal, some are unique, and many must be tailored.  I am grateful for this opportunity and look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together working towards the same goal—the goal that Beau Biden had-- ensuring all children are free from the threat of abuse.

Endnotes

1These different areas include the Call Center, Missing Children Division, Case Analysis Division, Exploited Children Division, Family Advocacy Division, Training and Outreach Division, Office of Legal Counsel, and Communication and Public Relations. 

2A complete list of NCMEC’s operational functions may be obtained at http://www.missingkids.org/programs.

3See 18 U.S.C. § 2258A - Reporting requirements of electronic communication service providers and remote computing service providers.

4See 42 U.S.C.§ 671(a)(35)(B).

5These are the most recent statistics provided by NCMEC.

6 Alaska, Delaware, and Rhode Island along with American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana, and the U.S. Virgin Islands all have original jurisdiction to prosecute all criminal cases.   Other states may have concurrent, appellate, or extremely limited criminal jurisdiction.  

7NAGTRI has developed human trafficking training for state prosecutors and recently provided training for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office and the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office.

8Biden Calls on Congress to Providence Critical Funding to Combat Human Trafficking. (Nov. 02, 2012),  http://news.delaware.gov/2012/11/02/biden-calls-on-congress-to-provide-critical-funding-to-combat-human-trafficking/.

9Biden Calls on Congress to Providence Critical Funding to Combat Human Trafficking (Nov. 02, 2012), http://news.delaware.gov/2012/11/02/biden-calls-on-congress-to-provide-critical-funding-to-combat-human-trafficking/.

10The National Child Protection Training Center and its affiliates have trained over 100,000 professionals in almost 20 countries.

11The Darkness to Light Stewards of Children® program is an integral part of the education outreach of the Beau Biden Foundation, carrying through on the goal set in 2011 when, as attorney general, Beau Biden launched an effort to train five percent of Delaware’s population. More than 22,000 Delawareans have been trained by a coalition of partners to prevent child abuse in Delaware.

12For more information, http://www.D2L.org.

13For more information, www.bacaworld.org or 1-866-71-ABUSE.

14These states are Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.

15States/territories such as Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Utah, and Guam have no civil statute of limitations for certain sexual abuses committed against children.  Interestingly, this directly coincides with their state’s removal of criminal statute of limitations for the prosecution of many types of crimes against children.    

16For example, in 2015, Maryland introduced but did not pass Senate bill 688 in an attempt to extend the statute of limitations of civil actions to 20 years to create larger window for the opportunity for victims to file a lawsuit.

17https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/.

19As of the writing of this article, Erin’s Law, originating out of Illinois, has been enacted in 28 states.  Delaware being the most recent.

20Jenna’s Law, originating out of Texas, has expanded this requirement to child care centers, foster care centers, child placing agencies, and universities.

21Despite being responsible for millions of children, private schools are often excluded from these requirements to develop these types of policies/practices.   

22See Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 105, § 110/3; Mo. Rev. Stat. § 160.2100 et. seq.

23http://www.kidsmartz.org/; http://www.kidsmartz.org/TeachingTools; http://www.kidsmartz.org/ParentTips; http://www.kidsmartz.org/Videos; http://www.netsmartz.org/Parents; http://www.netsmartz.org/RealLifeStories; http://www.netsmartz.org/NSTeens; http://www.netsmartz.org/TipSheets; http://www.nsteens.org/

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