PA Senate Hearing Underscores CAC Value & Need for Statewide Support

On Tuesday, August 8 the Pennsylvania Senate Aging and Youth Committee held a hearing focused on the work of Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs). Hosted by co-chairs Senator Judy Ward (R-District 30) and Senator Maria Collett (D-District 12), the hearing provided an opportunity for legislators to become more familiar with the CAC model and addressed current needs pertaining to CAC services statewide. Several members of the committee were present in-person for the hearing, which took place at the State Capitol building, with remaining members joining by Zoom video call.

Click the video preview below to watch the full hearing:

The hearing consisted of three panels with testimony offered by CAC leaders, partner agency representatives, and a caregiver: Panel 1 provided an overview of the Children’s Advocacy Centers movement in Pennsylvania, including history and funding; Panel 2 featured CAC leaders from Blair and Montgomery Counties, as well as a caregiver from Blair County who spoke to the role of the CAC in reducing trauma to her daughter and supporting their family through an investigation and trial; and Panel 3 focused on the multidisciplinary team process—with testimony by Robin Boyer, Director of Intake Services at Lancaster County Children and Youth Agency, and by Sean McCormack, District Attorney in Cumberland County.

CACs coordinate the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases—and the ongoing support and services needed by child victims and families—in partnership with teams of professionals involved in child protective and victim advocacy services, law enforcement and prosecution, and physical and mental health evaluation and treatment.

“Every child deserves to be heard, and in my mind the CAC is the best place where they can be heard,” said Richard Servello, who oversees FSI Center for Child Justice, the Blair County CAC. Also from Blair County, Jessica DiGennaro spoke from the perspective of a caregiver whose daughter came to the CAC in 2019 because of alleged abuse: “The CAC’s model is impressive and certainly provides the best way to reduce the trauma of an already traumatic experience…As a team, the members involved…worked together delicately for the common purpose of making this process less traumatic. By less traumatic I mean that our daughter only had to recount her trauma once, and that was enough. It was only possible…by bringing all members of the agencies involved together at the same time. Our family agrees this is the best way to approach anyone who has endured trauma…”

Jessica DiGennaro, a caregiver from Blair County, testified to the quality of support that her daughter and their family received in 2019 from the CAC in Blair County.

Questions from the committee focused on gaps in services where counties do not have access to a CAC—with Senator Lisa Baker (R-District 20) expressing concern for rural communities that face travel barriers—as well as funding needs and service costs. Senator Comitta (D-District 19) concluded the first response period: “What [can we do] in the legislature to help? Is it money? Is it a mandate? What is it that we can do to help you do your job even better?” Chris Kirchner, Executive Director at Children’s Advocacy Centers of Pennsylvania—the State Chapter of accredited CACs—emphasized that yes, more significant and sustainable funding should be a priority.

Responding to Senator Comitta’s question about “a mandate,” Kirchner also acknowledged the challenges of information-sharing and team collaboration across agencies—a point the hearing returned to during the final comments provided by Sean McCormack, who prosecutes child abuse cases in Cumberland County and has worked closely with UPMC Child Advocacy Center of Central PA. McCormack referenced the existing state law that requires a multidisciplinary team response but does not include specific language about CACs—and stressed the challenges this can create for CACs that are required by their national accrediting agency to demonstrate collaboration with partner agencies and information access. “We shouldn’t be working under workarounds,” said McCormack. “We should have something directly in legislation.”

Toward the end of the hearing, Senator Ward—who recently toured the CAC in Blair County— addressed fellow committee members and legislators at large: “I would encourage all of our colleagues to visit the CACs in their communities so they know the resources available.”

Following the hearing, Children’s Advocacy Centers of Pennsylvania will be providing information as requested to inform further conversations about state support of CACs.

Watch the livestream recording of the August 8 hearing on CACs here.

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