The term “child advocate” was created in 1989 as a name for child protection workers, who would assist parents in making decisions about their children’s well-being.
In recent years, child advocates have been able to work across a range of professions including law, social work, and advocacy.
They work with a wide range of families, and often take on more complex cases than parents.
“When you have an organization like ours that is going to be looking after people, that’s where they will have a real impact on how a child feels and how a parent feels,” says Elizabeth Baskin, executive director of the National Advocacy Center.
Baskins says child advocates are often in positions of authority over children who may not have access to adequate services.
“We see parents who are experiencing a mental health crisis, where their children are having an emotional breakdown, where they are struggling with mental health issues.
It is difficult for us to advocate on behalf of these parents,” she says.
Some child advocates say that because of the legal profession’s reputation as a “safe space” for victims of sexual assault, many have assumed that child advocates could provide services to victims.
But Baskis says that isn’t always the case.
“I don’t think many child advocates would agree that we are safe spaces for victims,” she said.
“Some of the abuse cases we see are very traumatic.
They are very personal, very painful experiences for victims and survivors.”
But Binsons says that she doesn’t see it as a problem for her organization to serve children who have been sexually abused.
“The reason that we work with survivors and survivors of sexual abuse is to provide them with the tools they need to live safely in the world and to be able to have a normal life,” she explains.
Child advocates, including Baskes, say that the lack of a clear definition of child abuse means that child advocate organizations don’t always know what kind of abuse children may be experiencing.
Some organizations have begun using terms such as “gender-variant” and “gender identity disorder” instead of the more common terms such inattentive, hyperactive, or disruptive behavior.
They also have not always been able or willing to work with children who are at risk of being abused.
In one case, a child advocacy worker was fired after a parent reported that her daughter had been sexually assaulted.
“She was very upset that we were going to fire her because she said that we didn’t know how to work together, and that we had not been able and willing to support her and her child,” Baskas says.
“So we decided that we needed to get a better understanding of the type of abuse that might be happening.”
In some cases, parents have had to make a decision to take their child to a shelter instead of a child welfare agency.
For many child protection professionals, that means getting a child to see a therapist rather than going through the legal system.
Basks says that some of the challenges for child advocates include the fact that the child will often be in the spotlight.
“You are constantly going to have people who are coming in and going through these very traumatic cases and being seen as having done something wrong,” she explained.
“And you have to get that child out of the spotlight and into the system, where she can be looked after.”
Basks says that many of the parents she works with are afraid of losing their jobs.
“It is very difficult when you have a child and you know that you will be out there on the front line and you have no protection and you don’t have a safe space,” she continues.
“If you have that child, and she has been abused, what can you do?”
The National Advocates Center for Law and Child Safety provides training on how to advocate for children and families.
Basking says that the center has also developed a training manual, Child Abuse Response and Intervention: Child Abuse and Neglect: The Legal Role for Law Enforcement and Family Advocates.
For more information about child advocacy, including training on what it is, who can work with it, and how to use it, visit www.naclslaw.org.
*This article was updated on March 26, 2018 to reflect a statement from the Child Advocate’s Association.