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BENTONVILLE -- Students going through Northwest Arkansas Community College's two-year Child Advocacy Studies Program learn what it takes a professional five years to learn in the field, according to the leader of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center.

The national center recently reviewed and approved the college's Child Advocacy Studies Program, also known as CAST, making it the first community college and fifth higher educational institution to receive such approval.

"This recognition really reflects the dedication of both our college and our community to the goal of ending child abuse," Deirdre Slavik, chairwoman of the Behavioral Sciences Department and coordinator of the Child Advocacy Studies program, said in a statement.

The experiential and interdisciplinary program provides professionals skills used when encountering cases of child abuse. Police, prosecutors, forensic interviewers, nurses, social workers, counselors and other child protection workers are some of the jobs people with this degree pursue.

The child advocacy studies movement began about a decade ago when child protection leaders realized schools weren't preparing students for real-world experiences.

"Unless a professional acquires this education in the field, they were just going to miss most cases of child abuse or not know how to respond competently," said Victor Vieth, founder and senior director of the national training center.

By the numbers

The Children’s Advocacy Center of Benton County served 833 children in 2017. Of them:

• 495 were female

• 338 were male

• 265 were between the ages of 5 and 8

• 236 were between the ages of 9 and 12

• 228 were 13 or older

• 104 were 4 or younger

• 381 were sexually abused

• 200 were physically abused

• 70 were witnesses of abuse

• 19 were neglected

• 230 experienced various other types of abuse

The types of abuse totals are 900 as come children disclosed multiple types of abuse.

Source: Children’s Advocacy Center of Benton County 2017 annual report

The U.S. Department of Education called on higher education institutions to improve the training of those who would be working with abused children.

There are 47 universities and a few community colleges in 20 states offer CAST programs, Vieth said. The national training center has reviewed and approved only a handful of them.

The review process is a way for higher education institutions to measure the rigor and effectiveness of their CAST programs, he said.

"Having the curriculum is one thing, but ensuring that it's being taught at a very high level and is making an impact on students and in turn making an impact on the children they work with is another thing," Vieth said, explaining that's why the national training center developed an approval review process.

Northwest Arkansas Community College's CAST program was initially housed in the criminal justice department with coursework leading to a Certificate of Proficiency and a Technical Certificate.

The program was expanded in the fall of 2017, allowing students to pursue an Associate of Arts Degree from the behavioral science department with an emphasis in Child Advocacy Studies. The new degree includes coursework in criminal justice, psychology and social work.

More than 400 students have taken child advocacy studies courses at the college, according to program data. There were 59 students enrolled in the three CAST courses offered in the spring semester.

The Children's Advocacy Center of Benton County partners with the college to enhance classes and hold lectures to help prepare students for real world experience.

Learning about child abuse in the field with little to no training can often lead to high levels of turnover, said Melanie Holbrook, education specialist and forensic interviewer at the Children's Advocacy Center of Benton County.

"If they can be more confident and prepared going into the job, that may help reduce burn out," she said.

The Advocacy Center served 833 children last year, according to its 2017 annual report.

That's not representative of all cases, Holbrook said, citing the 2,384 reports of child maltreatment that were made to the child abuse hotline last year.

The college is a regional partner of the national training center and is home to the Melba Shewmaker Southern Region National Child Protection Training Center.

Child advocacy classes are held in the regional center, which includes a courtroom, forensic interview rooms and a fully functional mock house, Slavik said. The mock house is used to stage various child abuse scenarios that simulate what professionals will encounter in the real world.

The regional center is also used to train professionals such as law enforcement officers, prosecutors, forensic interviewers, social workers and counselors. There were nearly 6,000 people who received training at the center in 2015, according to its website. Professionals from all 75 Arkansas counties have received training there over the last few years.

"Not only do we use these spaces in our CAST academic classes and CAST workforce trainings, these spaces are community resources," Slavik said. "Child protection professionals in need of space to conduct their own trainings can use these facilities as well. These resources are for the child protection community."

Vieth and Betsy Goulet, a CAST consultant, reviewed the college's program in February. The review included a curriculum evaluation, site visit, classroom observation, interviews with students and examination of data.

"It's really a historic moment, not only for NWACC but for the child protection movement," Vieth said. "Going forward, I envision NWACC being a national leader and taking what they've done and spreading that to other community colleges throughout the United States."

NW News on 06/10/2018

Print Headline: National group recognizes NWACC CAST program

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