Written By: Prince William County
Prince William County recently won two Virginia Association of Counties, or VACO, Achievement Awards, which recognize excellence in local government programs. The county received an award for establishing the Prince William County Child Advocacy Center, which helps children going through the trauma associated with child abuse allegations, investigations and prosecutions; and for expanding a program that helps children understand gun safety.
“I am extremely proud of the hard work of the county agencies that created and maintain these important programs that serve the youth in our community,” said County Executive Chris Shorter. “These awards are a testament to the dedication and innovation of the county’s workforce and our commitment to provide outstanding service to all the residents of our community. We are honored that VACo recognized these incredible programs.”
In its Fiscal Year 2021 Budget, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors directed the Prince William County Department of Social Services, or DSS, leadership team to find ways to enhance the department’s already robust investigative response to child abuse and neglect cases.
The DSS team collaborated with the public, police, community services, the commonwealth attorney, county attorney, victim advocacy services, health care representatives, and the DSS Advisory Board to form a Child Advocacy Center (CAC) Development Committee, which studied and researched alternative ways of doing business to better serve children. In its work, the committee found that traditional approaches to child abuse investigations through numerous agencies and investigators could result in fragmented responses.
The committee studied various methodologies, and DSS, with the board’s support, decided to implement the CAC model, which is a nationally recognized method that supports a seamless, effective, trauma-informed response to child abuse allegations, investigations and prosecutions. The model also emphasizes coordination and collaboration with the partner agencies with a goal of avoiding re-traumatization of children during the investigative process. In addition, the CAC model allows for services to be more efficient, victim access to services to occur more quickly and $1,000 in estimated tax savings per investigation.
Prince William County’s CAC is unique in that it is situated within DSS on government property with state-of-the-art technology that connects law enforcement and the commonwealth attorney, in real time, during forensic interviews with child survivors of abuse and/or neglect to gather evidence for prosecutions.
“This is the only CAC in a local Department of Social Services,” said DSS Director Courtney Tierney. “The success is clear in the numbers of children seen, interviews conducted and referrals made. We are also the only CAC with the special technology equipment that allows police department, social services, child protective services and the commonwealth attorney’s office to listen to, record, and use information from forensic interviews in prosecutions. It is a collaborative effort and results in prosecuting perpetrators of abuse and neglect of children.”
The CAC opened its doors to clients in April 2022. As of June 2023, 388 forensic interviews have been conducted, 401 cases have been reviewed by the multidisciplinary team, 1,921 advocacy-related appointments and services have been secured, and 420 mental health sessions have been conducted.
“We are thrilled with the CAC’s results,” Tierney said. “We knew there would be an impact, but we did not expect such a large impact so quickly. Children who are abused or neglected, especially those with sexual and/or other physical abuse, are already traumatized. To re-traumatize them with multiple interviews in sterile environments, that are not child friendly, diminishes the possibility of prosecuting perpetrators effectively and ending the abuse. Having a safe community for all ages is a fundamental value in Prince William County.”
The latest numbers from the Pew Research Center show that 1,732 children and teens under 18 died in the United States in unintentional shootings before the pandemic in 2019. By 2021, the number of unintentional gun deaths rose to 2,590.
The Prince William Sheriff’s Office created its Gun Safety Program in 2016 in collaboration with Project Child Safe and the Virginia Cooperative Extension. The program supplements the “Safe at Home, Safe Alone” program taught in fourth-grade classes across the state.
The gun safety program, which is offered in Prince William County and the City of Manassas, teaches children steps they can take to keep themselves and others safe if they find a gun at home, outdoors or in someone else’s home.
“I felt as the sheriff, our office had a responsibility to educate our youth on all aspects of guns, which include: the dangers of, safety, the improper use of, and reckless handling of guns,” said Prince William County Sheriff Glendell Hill. “Another integral part of this program is the parent pledges to secure their firearms, and the child pledges to not touch or handle any found firearms.”
The program reaches 4,000 to 5,000 fourth-grade students annually with a 30- to 45-minute presentation along with videos, a group discussion and brochures. Instituting the program filled a void in firearm safety education in schools.
The Gun Safety program was initially only taught in the county’s public schools, but it was so well received that private and traditional schools began offering the gun safety education in the 2022-2023 school year. While there are no definitive statistics on the efficacy of the program, school officials say they have noticed a difference in their schools since the program started.
“Overall, the program provides awareness and a commitment to safety,” Hill said. “We have heard from school administrators, counselors and teachers that they have seen a notable difference from what they have observed with their students since the onset of this program. It is comments and positive feedback like this that tells me this program is working.”
The fourth graders sign a Firearms Responsibility Contract to reenforce the classroom instruction. The contract reads: I hereby promise I will not handle firearms without permission. I will never play with firearms. If I find a firearm, I will not touch it; I will tell an adult immediately. I will obey the rules of safe firearms handling.
“I am extremely proud of this program because of the benefits it provides to the community and how it has been well-received by the schools, parents and students. I am also very proud of my staff that conduct and interact with the students, teachers, counselors and parents. They are all outstanding representatives of this office,” Hill said.