A group of 42 therapists and child victim advocates attended the inaugural Arkansas Child Advocacy Centers Conference for Advocates and Mental Health Professionals, held Oct. 20 at Camp Ferncliff in Little Rock. Sponsored by PRI’s ARBEST (Arkansas Building Effective Services for Trauma) program, the conference attracted representatives from all 14 of the state’s child advocacy centers (CAC).
Karen Hangartner, deputy project director of the National Children’s Advocacy Center was the keynote speaker at the daylong event, tackling the difficult subject of secondary trauma. The emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another, secondary traumatic stress can cause therapists to experience symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hangartner urged the audience to be wary of the symptoms of secondary trauma, which can include changes in memory and perception, a depletion of personal resources and a disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust and independence. It is important for them to recognize their own problems, said Hangartner, in order to remain in their field and to continue to serve their clientele.
Arkansas First Lady Susan Hutchinson spoke to the attendees during their lunch, thanking them for their efforts to aid victims of child abuse throughout the state. Hutchinson is a long-time supporter of the state’s CACs and a board member emeritus of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Benton County.
The conference opened with a panel discussion on child human trafficking in Arkansas. Human trafficking is the recruitment or harboring of a minor child for the purposes of commercial sexual activity or involuntary servitude. Emily Robbins of PRI’s Child Study Center, Reagan Stanford of Catholic Charities of Arkansas and Karrah Dickeson of the Texarkana Children’s Advocacy Center led the discussion, aimed at raising awareness about a growing problem in the state.
Ben Sigel, Ph.D., of PRI’s Child Study Center and Janice Church of the UAMS Department of Pediatrics, led a break-out session for the therapists later in the day on addressing cognitive distortions associated with trauma. Dickeson and Kathy Helpenstill, a therapist and forensic interviewer at the White County Child Safety Center, also discussed strategies for working with non-offending parents who have difficulty supporting their children after a report of abuse. Simultaneous sessions were held for advocates on working with difficult people and the challenges of being an advocate of child abuse victims.
Children seen at CACs are referred to the centers by local law enforcement authorities following allegations of abuse, most often reported through the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ child abuse hotline. All services provided by the CACs, including forensic interviews, medical examinations and mental-health therapy, are free of charge.