Can Kids Thrive—SHINE—After Abuse and Trauma? Yes, here’s how.

Shine is not a small word.

This month, Children’s Advocacy Centers of Pennsylvania is running a campaign for courage. We’re raising awareness and support for the essential role that CACs play in helping child victims feel safe enough to tell what happened to them and start down the path to healing.

You may have seen our emails in your inbox, or our ads on your social media feed. You may have signed our petition. And across all of it, you might have noticed this not-so-little word—SHINE—in big, bold capital letters. Because it’s one thing (a really, really important thing) to make it easier for child victims to get help and survive abuse. But here at Pennsylvania’s CACs, we’re not content to stop there. We’re interested in an even bigger question:

After surviving abuse and trauma, what does it take for a child victim to SHINE?

Shine is a big word. Surviving isn’t shining. Surviving is getting by, getting your basic needs met. To shine is something much bigger. To shine is to thrive.

That’s Tonia Hartzell. Tonia is the Family Advocate at the Children’s Advocacy Center of McKean County. When kids arrive at the CAC, Tonia’s is often the first face they see. And she has seen firsthand what it is that makes the CAC process so unique for child victims and their families. She has seen the difference it can make, and why it’s so important to make sure that every single child in Pennsylvania has access to a CAC.

Tonia Hartzell, Family Advocate at the CAC serving child victims in McKean County, PA

Tonia started out as a caseworker in Social Services for McKean County’s local children and youth services. After a short break from social services, “I got a phone call offering me a position as a Children’s Advocate for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Victims. Looking back, it was exactly where I was supposed to be. I was here when the CAC opened, and I’ve been doing this work ever since.”

Children’s Advocacy Centers are unique because of the collaboration and teamwork. Here in McKean County, we’ve always had great teamwork and collaboration among service and aid providers, but when the CAC opened in 2012, it brought everyone together in a way that truly took the burden off of the kids. In the early years, before we were all working together, kids fell through the cracks. We saw the brokenness. Now, families don’t have to jump through hoops to get help. We’re all here. We all work together. We become their team.

It’s hard to imagine any circumstance where a team is more important. In the US, 1 in 10 children are sexually abused before their 18th birthday, and over 42 million adults who live here are survivors of child sexual abuse. And of the millions of child victims who experience abuse, at least 60% (and it could be as high as 90%) never tell anyone what’s happening to them because they don’t feel safe to do so. 

That’s what Pennsylvania’s CACs are working to solve.

Every CAC is designed to help children and their families feel safe, seen, and cared for. Instead of the stark rooms of law enforcement buildings, children here encounter warmly decorated entryways, artwork, toys, and comfy furniture. Instead of being passed from interview to interview with different agencies, they talk about what happened a single time with a specially trained forensic interviewer who knows how to ask children about abuse.

Teen Interview Room at Berks County Children's Alliance Center

And instead of facing a long list of confusing unknowns, families are guided through every step of the process—from the initial investigation to interventions that keep children safe, then on through long-term healing. Many CACs even provide age-appropriate medical exams on-site with physicians and nurses who have experience responding to child abuse, trauma therapy for both child victims and their caregivers, and help preparing for court in cases that go to trial.

The difference these details make is not small.

Because I’m often the one greeting and welcoming families, I get to see the relief on their faces. I get to see them realize that this is a welcoming space. It’s not a dark-walled police station, not an interrogation room. It’s not scary. They are in a protected space, with everyone they need to see in one building. It’s a completely new experience for a lot of the kids and adults who walk through our doors, and from the moment they walk through the door, you can see the relief.

Artwork by children who have visited Children’s Advocacy Center of McKean County

When I encounter a child who is especially nervous, we make a pit stop in my office to look at the art on my walls. The walls are covered with artwork from kids of all ages who have come through this place, and it has a powerful effect on children the first time they visit. It’s as though they are realizing, seeing proof for the first time: ‘Oh, I’m not the first kid who has been here. All of these kids have been here.’ 

Sometimes they’ll ask questions: ‘Were those kids nervous? Were they scared?’ And another layer of isolation dissolves. Before we even get started, they are beginning to understand that there’s a lot of hope here.”

With that hope comes courage. The courage to tell what happened. The courage, when necessary, to navigate an intimidating criminal justice system. The courage for caregivers and family members to tend to their own healing. The courage child victims of abuse need to start sharing, start healing…

…to start to SHINE.

For a child victim of abuse to SHINE, it takes a team. A team of people to listen to them, to really hear them, to support them, and to work together to advocate for the well being of their entire family. To build a support system around them. To give them back some control. Even without trauma, kids don’t have a lot of control over their lives. Trauma takes even more of that control away. But when someone believes in them, supports them, really listens—it helps them believe in themselves. And that’s when they start to SHINE.

One thing I’m passionate about is how carefully we communicate to children and caretakers what is going to happen. At CACs, we make sure they know, every step of the way, what is going on. Because it’s not OUR experience, it’s not our story—it’s theirs. By communicating clearly who they are meeting, and why, and what will happen, we give them back that piece of control over that story. They decide what they are and aren’t ready for. And they get the sense that they are surrounded by people who support them. They realize they aren’t alone.

And maybe that’s the simplest explanation of the CAC difference: CACs make it safer to recover, heal, thrive—to truly shine—by making sure child victims and their caregivers know they aren’t alone. Because no child should have to navigate abuse and trauma on their own. Every child deserves a team. 

Every child victim deserves access to a CAC, because every child deserves to shine.

Every child is different. Every family is different. There’s no checklist. Sometimes caregivers need as much, even more, support than the child. But that’s the beauty of the CAC. We’re working to reduce trauma and promote healing for the whole family. Kids thrive when families thrive, so we don’t just give them tools to get through the investigation, or through the court process—we help prepare them for what comes next. We make sure they know they aren’t alone for the path ahead. It’s not a straight path. But if we utilize what we know we can do as a team, when the twists and turns come, that family will be able to stay on the path, and not fall off.”

"Every child is different. Every family is different. There's no checklist...that's the beauty of a CAC."

“The extra support that the CAC provides after the investigation is over, after legal matters are handled—those are the pieces that make the difference. From now on, these kids and their families have a team on their side. 

Listen. Believe. See. Stay involved. Those words are everything to these kids and their families.”

Those words are the difference between child victims who survive, and child victims who SHINE.

It takes all of us to help kids thrive after abuse and trauma. You can help us provide more child victims with the support they need to SHINE. Sign our petition today.

Tonia Hartzell is the Family Advocate at the Children’s Advocacy Center of McKean County.  She was born and raised in Kane, PA, and is passionate about doing what she can to make a difference in McKean and surrounding counties.

Tonia is a Credentialed Advocate at the Advanced Level (Comprehensive Victim Intervention Specialist) through the National Advocate Credentialing Program. Curious about the process of becoming a credentialed advocate? Learn more here.

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