Youth Advocacy Center Appeals to Legislators Ahead of New Session of Legislature

At Youth Advocacy Center of Lewis County, Lawmakers Urged to Support Child Survivors of Sexual Assault


Lawmakers Urged to Fund Programs for Child Survivors of Sexual Assault

Funding: Youth Advocacy Center Appeals to Legislators Ahead of New Session of Legislature

By Owen Sexton 

It takes a serious matter to make politicians bare emotions. 

Seeing the paper cranes representing children who underwent trafficking, abuse and assault while visiting the Youth Advocacy Center of Lewis County on Tuesday afternoon, though, sparked tears in the eyes of 20th District state Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia.

Joined by 19th District state Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, the lawmakers’ visit was prompted by a budget funding request from the Monarch Children’s Justice & Advocacy Center, a partner agency of the Youth Advocacy Center. 

Additionally, the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, the Office of Civil Legal Aid, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the Washington Sexual Assault Working Group all joined together with Monarch in making this request. 

Why Funding Is Needed

Samantha Mitchell, clinic coordinator and forensic interviewer for the Youth Advocacy Center of Lewis County, gave the legislators a guided tour of the center to explain why they should support more funding for these centers around the state. 

The Children’s Advocacy Centers of Washington has requested a total of $132 million from the Legislature for crime victim programs over the next budget biennium. 

Mitchell explained her job conducting forensic interviews with children who have been victims of abuse. She’s seen an increase in reported cases over the past two years during COVID-19, Mitchell added. 

Training required to conduct witness interviews with abused children is hard to get access to, and many can’t afford the cost and time it takes to become certified. More funding, Mitchell said, would help train more counselors. 

Aside from the forensic side of her work, Mitchell said the interviews help with the healing process whether or not they’re used as evidence in court. 

“I’ve seen more than one occasion where the child is done with the forensic interview and medical exam and they come out saying, ‘Mom there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m OK,’” Mitchell said. “Even if we’re not going to trial, even if we’re not using this in criminal cases, there’s still the healing aspect of (it). You get to tell your story and somebody believes you, and the doctors say you’re OK.”

When a child comes to the center, the environment is designed to help them feel safe and accepted. The space includes toys, movies and other sensory objects all readily available for the children to play with. Mitchell said the goal is to get the child comfortable enough to where they feel ready to talk about what happened. 

A private interview room with recording equipment has been set up once the child is ready. 

The Youth Advocacy Center also partners with Providence Abusive Intervention Center, which provides a medical team that administers exams to children who have been sexually abused or assaulted. While Mitchell is full-time, the medical examiners can only be at the center two days a month. Should more funding be secured, she said, some of it will go to helping more medical staff become qualified to administer exams to child victims.

“The adult sexual assault exam is different than the exam for a child. We need to make sure they get that training as well,” said Paula Reed, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Washington, who also joined the tour. 

If a medical professional wants to become qualified in this area, they have to pay for the training themselves and do it on their own time. Hospitals are not required to pay for it. 

According to Reed, a separate bill is currently being drafted to address this issue separate from the $132 million budget request. 

“The medical exams make the cases,” Mitchell said. “Forensic interviews are important. But when you’re on the stand in front of a jury, the medical professionals talking about what (the defendant) did makes the case.”

Abbarno, who has experience as a King County prosecutor in dealing with children who have been sexually assaulted, added that usually parents can’t be there to help in the healing process. 

“A lot of times, their parents aren’t with them because unfortunately the parents are often suspects in a lot of situations,” Abbarno said. 

Reed explained the $132 million would not only fund more advocacy centers and aid with training, but also help upscale domestic violence programs, sexual assault programs and civil legal service. The focus would still be on maintaining existing Children’s Advocacy Centers. 

According to research done by the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Washington, 75% of Washington domestic violence programs helped 2,306 survivors in 2020; 603 requests for help were still unmet. In addition, reports of sexual assault went up by double digits statewide, including by 19% in King County. 

Because of these increases, Reed added civil legal services needed more funding too as survivors of sexual assault or domestic abuse are twice as likely to face civil legal problems. 

Reed said current programs in place have been stretched thin as domestic abuse and assault cases have risen during the pandemic, a problem that’s only been made worse by the recent loss of federal Victims of Crimes Act (VOCA) funding and decades of inadequate state funding. 

“(Children’s Advocacy Centers) only get $1.2 million in state funding, VOCA for (Children’s Advocacy Centers) is about $3.6 million, we’re looking at about a 30+% cut in programs for fiscal year 2024 if the state doesn’t act,” said Mitchell. 

If the state grants the $132 million request, Monarch and its partners will be able to keep operating and maintaining existing advocacy centers. 

Aside from these needs, services for trafficking victims, crime victim witness services and Tribal government crime victim services would benefit from the funding. 

The state Legislature convenes for its next session Jan. 9. 

Darkness to Light, Educating the Community

Another program both Mitchell and Reed want to see expanded is Darkness to Light, which focuses on helping with long-term consequences of child sexual abuse, including increased risk of substance abuse, developing mental health issues, risk of eating disorders and developing physical health issues. 

While being a child victim of sexual abuse doesn’t guarantee one will develop these issues, the chances are higher. The goal of the Darkness to Light program is to increase community awareness about the signs that abuse may be occuring to help try to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. 

Community education is vital to reversing the increase in sexual assault of minors according to Mitchell. 

“One of the stories I tell is a really horrific case, the child, she was six, had to testify on the stand against her father. At the end of the day when the prosecutor and advocate asked her about something good that happened to her that day and she said, ‘I got to see my dad.’ He’s in the defendant’s chair,” said Mitchell. “So, there’s a dynamic to this type of abuse that’s really hard for the general population to wrap their heads around. That’s why I think the community outreach and education is really important because you’re educating your jury pool.”

Mitchell said the Darkness to Light program is already involved with local school districts to help school administrators and educators learn the possible warning signs that a child is being abused.

“Once you have 5% of the adult population trained in your community, you see a complete societal shift in how the community responds to child abuse, and you create a safer community because people are seeing things and being able to recognize what they see and do something about it,” Mitchell said. 

She added despite being underfunded, the Youth Advocacy Center of Lewis County has still helped hundreds of child survivors. The center provided many other resources to not just the children but their families as well, as many families face financial challenges during sexual assault cases. 

Since the center opened, 709 children have gone through and received interviews, exams and therapy, with countless more family members being helped too, Mitchell said. A large mural in the therapy room depicts a tree with leaves and origami cranes that represent all the children that have gone through the center so far. 

“It helps the children that come through here see, ‘oh I’m not alone.’ They’re brave just like everyone else,” Mitchell said. 

Both Abbarno and Wilson stated they would advocate for the state to provide the requested $132 million in upcoming legislative budget meetings.

“I bet everybody in this room, don’t show hands because I want to be right, but everybody in this room probably knows somebody that’s involved in some way or form in these dilemmas in life,” said Wilson, later adding, “we’re legislators, we gotta help translate that into some good data. I know numbers aren’t everything but we always have something we have to push. (The rise in children being abused) is bigger than it ever has been before. You can feel it in the communities.” 

The Youth Advocacy Center of Lewis County accepts donations. 

To donate, visit and earmark the donation for the Youth Advocacy Center of Lewis County. Donations are tax deductible.