It’s the first standard on the list: Multidisciplinary Team (MDT)—the professionals from every field necessary to help a child victim of abuse recover and heal. Every accredited Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) must demonstrate not only that it has a multidisciplinary team but also that this team’s work is supported by a written interagency agreement, that written guidelines outline each discipline’s roles and responsibilities, that team members are routinely involved in MDT interventions and that team members communicate ethically, legally and in a timely fashion. We experience the benefits of a strong MDT every day: with required members including law enforcement, child protective services, prosecution, medical, mental health, and victim advocacy, MDTs have proven to be a powerful and effective model for providing safety and services to child victims of sexual abuse and physical abuse. We know that with just a few phone calls, we can assemble a team of experts that communicates effectively, trusts one another and makes the “system” work for children in crisis. But, what if the child is a victim of commercial sexual exploitation (CSEC)? Do we know what to do? Do we know who to call? Do we have all the right members on our team?
Thankfully, exploited youth are no longer invisible and we are stepping up to better understand their experiences and to meet their needs. We know that common risk factors include histories of sexual and physical abuse, being a runaway, and multiple out of home placements. We are learning, too, that often high-risk and exploited children have been involved with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and are vulnerable in a variety of ways. In addition to child protective social workers, they are often connected to probation officers, juvenile detention workers, court professionals and civil and delinquency attorneys, all of whom have an interest in a good outcome for the child, may possess unique information on the child’s circumstances and can serve as a point of contact or trusted adult in the child’s life.
I believe, emphatically, that these critical professionals should also be part of a CAC’s multidisciplinary team for CSEC. The safety net created by this specialized team must include ALL of the professionals involved with high-risk and exploited youth. And, yes, this includes agencies we may have never worked with before or who are not traditionally part of a CAC team: runaway and homeless youth, residential, and juvenile detention programs and, yes, even the youth’s attorneys. These kids have no room in their lives for mistrust among professionals or interagency conflict. We, as their MDT, have a responsibility to bridge our differences, find common ground, and work together. We need to create an expanded, inclusive MDT with shared goals and agreed-upon core principles to provide a truly victim-centered, coordinated and effective CSEC response.
So, I invite you to take a look at your rolodex (or, more likely, your Outlook Contacts). Do your lists include the public defender’s office, juvenile probation, runaway and homeless youth programs, survivor mentoring programs and all the professionals that exploited youth need on their CSEC-specific MDT? Fifteen years ago, mine didn’t. But today, these professionals are not only on our MDT partner list; they are on our speed dial. As CSEC cases unfold rapidly, we know who to call and we have systems in place to communicate, collaborate and bring our best, most creative teamwork to bear. These are special cases that require special teams. Our team is stronger for its diversity and its ability to bridge systems.
As a national CAC movement, we do not yet have accreditation standards for CSEC MDTs. But we are experts at teamwork and we have an opportunity to establish the “gold standard” for collaborating on behalf of commercially sexually exploited youth. So, take a look at your MDT. If you haven’t already, consider inviting new partners to the table, fostering new relationships and expanding your CSEC MDT. It’s exciting and a bit daunting but brings uncharted possibility to this incredibly important work.
Susan Goldfarb, MSW, is the executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center of Suffolk County in Boston, MA. The CAC's Support to End Exploitation Now (SEEN) program and its CSEC MDT serve more than 175 high-risk and exploited youth each year.