‘A child-friendly process’: Joining forces to protect our little ones

First Witness Child Advocacy Center in Duluth provides a safe space for children to heal

When the unthinkable occurs, a child needs a safe space.

For more than 25 years, First Witness Child Advocacy Center has provided that space—with healing and protection for families and children.

Working with a multidisciplinary team of law enforcement, social services, medical providers, county attorneys, public defenders and mental health personnel, First Witness responds to cases of child abuse in the most safeguarded way possible.

“First and foremost, ours is a neutral, child-friendly process,” says Tracie Clanaugh, executive director for First Witness. “Our main goal is to make children feel comfortable throughout the interview process that often follows after the disclosure of abuse.

“We really seek to just provide a sense of hope throughout what can be an extremely difficult and trying time.”

In 2019, First Witness will conduct more than 200 interviews with children who allegedly experienced abuse.

Prior to the creation of First Witness in 1993, the typical process following an abuse allegation could see a child being interviewed between three and four times throughout the investigation. With First Witness, children are interviewed only once.

“We believe once is enough for a child to revisit their trauma, making it ultimately less damaging to them,” says Clanaugh. “Of course, if they require therapy or other resources, we’re there to connect them.”

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The advocacy aspect of First Witness sees a staff member working with a family to guide them through next steps after the alleged abuse. Such steps often include navigating the tricky areas of compromised living situations, as well as drawn-out court proceedings.

First Witness has placed a focus on its prevention program in recent years, educating about 2,000 children in the community by presenting in schools and teaching the meaning of boundaries, language and permission.

“We teach children that they are responsible for their own body’s safety,” says Clanaugh.

Enbridge is committed to improving quality of life in the communities near our operations and projects, including the Line 3 Replacement Project. This year, we donated $5,000 to First Witness support its spring fundraiser, which raised about $50,000 for facility operations.

In 2013, the organization launched its First Witness Training Program to train advocates in a number of disciplines—and their expertise is high in demand. Advocates and forensic interviewers from First Witness frequently travel to Washington, D.C., and New York state, respectively, to train similar organizations.

Last year alone, more than 1,500 professionals received training from First Witness to provide advocacy and forensic services to children in their own communities.

Clanaugh says the most fulfilling part of her role is knowing families will receive proper support throughout the process: “It gives me comfort knowing that we can provide what these families need in order to heal.”