The County District Attorney’s Office is setting up a new home for a program designed to help childhood victims of abuse.
County Supervisors recently green-lighted a lease for office space in San Luis Obispo to house a “Children’s Advocacy Center” or CAC that would provide a safe space where law enforcement can conduct victim and family interviews and investigate abuse crimes.
According to Acting District Attorney Eric Dobroth, the idea of CAC’s goes back some 35 years but wasn’t defined to the point where an accreditation system was set up until the passage of Assembly Bill 2741, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
“This legislation,” Dobroth said, “describes what is required for a CAC to be accredited through the National Children’s Alliance.”
Dobroth has been filling in for D.A. Dan Dow for a couple of months now, as Dow, who is a Lt. Colonel in the California National Guard, is currently deployed to the Middle East and is due to return home sometime in April.
He explained that the NCA has three levels of participation — Affiliate Membership, Associate Membership and Accredited Membership. SLO County has long had a CAC here and is now going to seek accreditation for its program, and a big part of that is to find the program a home.
In 2018, the District Attorney’s Office and Public Health began a partnership with the Center for Family Strengthening to develop the concept of a Child Advocacy Center (CAC) for San Luis Obispo County.
The idea was to establish a single place where child abuse investigations could be conducted, as well as victim and witness interviews, in private and out of respect to the young victims.
“The goal of the partnership,” Dobroth said, “was to develop a single safe and trauma informed location where child victims of physical and sexual abuse take part in a single comprehensive forensic interview administered by a District Attorney’s Office Child Forensic Interviewer; participate in a forensic medical exam administered by a Public Health doctor or nurse to gather physical evidence in a criminal investigation; and receive comprehensive advocacy services necessary for physical and mental wellbeing and healing.”
One of the first steps was to form a “Multiple Disciplinary Team” or MDT. In SLO County the D.A.’s Office’s so-called Child Forensic Interviewers, Public Health Doctors and Nurses, Suspected Abuse Response Team (SART), Law Enforcement, Child Welfare Services, Lumina Alliance, and the Center for Family Strengthening, came together to start the program. But there’ve been hiccups.
“The existing process,” Dobroth said, “requires child victims and their families to go to several locations for investigative and advocacy services. A general law enforcement interview is typically conducted in the field or at the station house. More in-depth Child Forensic Interview occurs at the District Attorney’s Christopher G. Money Victim Witness Assistance Center located in the downtown Courthouse Annex, advocacy services and resource referrals are provided at this location as well. A forensic medical examination takes place at a Health Agency location on Bishop Avenue.”
Bouncing traumatized child victims around and asking a lot of questions each step of the way can be troubling.
“Requiring a child victim and effected family members,” Dobroth said, “to relocate several times to receive services at a time of turmoil is not trauma informed and not consistent with best practices for a CAC.”
According to the “best practices” policies of the State and Federal Governments, this isn’t how a CAC is supposed to operate. “State and National CAC best practices,” Dobroth said, “mandate that the child victim and supporting family undergo a child forensic interview and forensic medical examination and receive advocacy services at a single location co-occupied by the CAC team.
“San Luis Obispo County is one of the few counties in California that does not have an established brick and mortar CAC that co-locates forensic interviews, forensic medical exams, and other advocacy services. “
He added that the courthouse is a very public building and the Bishop Street medical facilities are shared with the County Drug and Alcohol Services and the Probation Department.
Coming into compliance with the NCA’s accreditation requirements falls on the D.A.’s Office, which reportedly has found a good place to set up shop.
They found a location at 3220 S. Higuera St., in SLO in an office complex that houses numerous doctor offices and other businesses as well as the State Department of Housing & Community Development Center, among numerous others.
The building is known as the Water Building and the County is leasing the space from Walter Bros. Const. It won’t be cheap but the D.A.’s Office is covering the start up costs out of its budget.
Lease payments are $6,835 a month through fiscal year 2027-28 with start-up costs pegged at $195,000.
The startup money is coming from savings from vacant positions within the D.A.’s Office and a special “Automation Trust Fund” ($53,000).
“In FY 2023-24,” Dobroth said, “salary savings from the District Attorney’s Office is projected for year-end at approximately $300k, which will cover the initial startup costs in year-one. General fund support is being requested for the remaining FYs for a total of $271,044 for the 42 months remaining of the lease.”
Annual lease payments for the CAC were listed by the report, with FY 23/24 costing $36,000; $73,000 for FY 24/25; $75,000 in FY 25/26; $79,000 in FY 27/28 and $40,000 for a partial year in FY 28/29. All of this must come from the County General Fund, however, Dobroth said they are seeking grants to offset the costs.
In the end though, the County feels it’s worth it. “Opening a brick-and-mortar CAC within San Luis Obispo County,” Dobroth said, “will reduce barriers by bringing together multi-disciplinary teams in one centralized location. By affording the child victims and their families the opportunity to receive services in one easily accessible and private location, barriers to access services are reduced increasing the participation rate of the child victims and their families and ultimately resulting in a healthier future for the child victims.”
And the SLO County D.A.’s Office has of late been aggressively prosecuting men accused of multiple sex acts with children, winning long prison sentences in several troubling cases.