Voices from the Field

Build Relationships with Lawmakers Before You Need Them

Nick Bratvold with Senator Thune and NCA's Denise Edwards in the senator's office, standing in front of flags.

In some ways, legislative advocacy is like toilet paper: You don’t really think about it until it’s absolutely necessary. You usually forget to include it in your budget, it feels a little funny to talk about in public, and, frankly, you can never have enough of it.

This wasn’t how I always felt. When I began as South Dakota’s Chapter director, leading the statewide movement of Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs), I wasn’t exactly sure what all the fuss was about. Meet with my legislators? Really? The concept felt little more than obligatory—like the $20 bill my mother still sends me for my birthday.

See, looking back, I had this impression that politicians and their staff were simply too busy or important. They intimidated me, in some ways, and I was afraid my voice would become lost in the crowd. It was difficult to see myself in their shoes, to imagine that their interests (and vote) would ever intentionally align with our efforts. I was hard-pressed to believe that a 15-minute, hurried, coffee-sponsored meeting could bear fruit.

And then—as the cliché goes—we met. Sure enough, they weren’t superheroes. In fact, they appeared little more comfortable in a suit and tie than I was. As it turns out, they were just regular folks from South Dakota who decided on a different sort of public service. I didn’t realize just how normal they really were. 

All my preparation was, more or less, worthless. It was like any good date: Identify commonalities, poke fun at differences, incite some curiosity, build trust, ask for a second date, and leave with a dumb, small-town joke. 

More realistically, however, it was a speed date where only one party rotated. Whereas we discuss child abuse day-in and day-out, our representatives don’t have the liberty to give one issue their undivided attention. But they’re sure allowed to have favorites. 

In 2017, both of our state’s senators—Sen. John Thune (pictured above, during a recent visit I made with NCA’s Government Affairs Director Denise Edwards) and Sen. Mike Rounds—supported re-authorization of the Victims of Child Abuse Act, the only federal funding solely dedicated to CACs, for the first time. Sen. Rounds even went so far as to sign on as an original co-sponsor. Both continue to check in regarding future re-authorization and other opportunities for partnership on related legislation. Stateside, we’ve more and more often been invited to the table to discuss a host of relevant issues, from mandatory reporting of observed or suspected maltreatment to statutes of limitations that keep adult survivors from getting justice. 

I quickly learned that, while we work in a field that is generally bipartisan, consensus is all but assured. The devil, as usual, is in the details. Because our representatives and their staff are typically in the dark about these details, it’s our job to give them the information they need to pass legislation protecting kids. Easy peasy, right? 

And therein lies the piece I had forgotten: the relationship. Child abuse won’t ever be fun or easy to talk about, particularly with those who don’t work within the field. But we can build bridges to our elected officials that rest on more than a mildly sturdy foundation of ambivalent repulsion towards a distasteful topic. 

If I can find value in engaging our representatives—as the cliché ends—so can you. If it helps, think of it like making friends. Remember: let go of presumptions, the best friendships are usually the longest, and no one likes a one-sided relationship.  

I can’t promise that your representatives will listen to you or that you’ll become enthusiastic friends after a few meetings. I can, however, promise that if you don’t stay connected with them, when the day comes that you need one another, they may have already forgotten who you are and what we do.  

So, in short, go stock up.


Nick Bratvold is the Chapter coordinator and statewide multidisciplinary team (MDT) development coordinator with the Child Advocacy Centers of South Dakota (CACSD). As an Accredited State Chapter, CACSD’s mission is to support South Dakota’s communities by establishing and strengthening CACs and MDTs in order to better serve abused, vulnerable, and neglected children.