16,000 Served: Honoring the growth of our Children's Court Services program
By natalie-petrieSep 20, 2015
The Houston Area Women's Center's Children’s Court Services (CSS) program recently announced its 16,000th client referral, marking its continued growth and commitment to serve Harris County child victims or witnesses to crimes — as well as their non-offending family members.
Launched in 1983 by the Houston Metropolitan Ministries as the Youth Victim/Witness (YVW) program, the newly-formed child advocates group first set-out to identify the gaps in services to children and youth who were victims of crime. And as Pam Hobbs, manager of Children's Court Services (and formerly YVW) describes, the findings were troubling — and ultimately reflecting a system of justice that was simply not designed with children in mind.
In Houston, an overwhelming number of victims — in cases relating to extreme neglect, physical or sexual abuse and other cases where children experience a great level of risk — received little to no advocacy support outside that of their paid or court-appointed attorney.
"Victims were being re-traumatized by a legal system that was supposed to protect them,” said Hobbs, who has worked tirelessly for the justice of survivors since VYW's inception. "They need someone they can trust to explain the legal system on their level and be there every step of the way."
Child victims or witnesses to acts of violence have special needs, especially when addressing traumatic experiences to the court. Parents and guardians may also require additional support to understand the often-confusing legal jargon and procedures — in addition to helping their child recover from trauma.
An advocate's sustained, personal attention to each child's circumstances means that the victim and their family are more likely to receive assistance accessing a higher number of services such as impact statement preparation, crisis counseling and crime victims compensation.
Hobbs also explained that children in the courtroom who are well-prepared, understand what is expected and have had the chance to learn about the all players and the rules, not only better participate in the testifying process — but often benefit from it.
"They're empowered by the experience of talking about their abuse and confronting the perpetrator in a safe environment. For many children, going to court helps them put an end to a chapter so they can move on."
For nearly two decades, the YVW program continued to thrive serving thousands of victimized children and families, establishing community relations and addressing needs based on its assessment of gaps in services. Then in 2002, the organization merged under the Houston Area Women’s Center’s umbrella of services and changed its name to Children’s Court Services to better reflect the program's broad spectrum of services.
Today, CCS consists of four advocates and an intake specialist who practice an individualized, one-on-one approach to several hundreds of clients a year. Families in need of court preparation and support are referred by law enforcement, the district attorney's office, Child Protective Services, hospitals and counselors. Once a court advocate is assigned, they remain with the child through the disposition of the case, which can sometimes take several years.
"We've seen kids who have literally grown up waiting to go to court or complete the process," said Hobbs. "But we've seen so many children go through this and truly become survivors. They do not let their abuse define them, and they go on to live happy, healthy lives — that's why we do this work."
To this day, the Children's Court Services program at the Houston Area Women's Center remains the only court advocate program in Texas providing specialized advocacy, case management and court accompaniment for children affected by violent crimes.