Police Capt. Jay Tilley and Sheriff Jimmy Thornton have their heads together discussing impending sexual abuse cases and law enforcement’s role in handling them, while Sampson’s DSS director Sarah Bradshaw mulls paperwork regarding another case.
All have come together at one table, along with representatives from mental health, the Guardian ad Litem program, the medical field and the District Attorney’s office to discuss child sexual abuse and serious physical injury cases that all have dealt with — or will soon have to. Their ultimate aim — to prevent cases from slipping through the cracks and to better serve all those involved, particularly victims, eliminating some of the trauma along the way.
The group is officially known as the Multi-Disciplinary Team, or MDT, and members have been putting their collective heads together now for some six months, all in an effort to streamline the process which, in turn, better serves the needs of all those involved, said volunteer MDT coordinator Shannon Blanchard.
Blanchard, along with some MDT members gathered earlier this month to discuss cases, offering their best advice and providing information that, from law enforcement to medical personnel to the DAs office and Social Services, give all those involved a clearer idea of what components of the case need closer scrutiny and the history that, in many ways, paints a clearer picture for all those gathered.
By definition, multidisciplinary teams are groups of professionals from diverse disciplines who come together to provide comprehensive assessment and consultation in abuse cases. While their primary purpose is typically to help team members resolve difficult cases, teams may fulfill a variety of additional functions. They can promote coordination between agencies; provide a “checks and balances” mechanism to ensure that the interests and rights of all concerned parties are addressed; and identify service gaps and breakdowns in coordination or communication between agencies or individuals. They also enhance the professional skills and knowledge of individual team members by providing a forum for learning more about the strategies, resources, and approaches used by various disciplines.
“We review cases once a month,” Blanchard noted prior to the start of the closed-door meeting, designed that way for the privacy of all those involved in the highly sensitive cases being discussed.
“We deal with cases involving those who are 15 years old or younger. If someone is severely handicapped or mentally handicapped, then we also deal with those cases up to age 18,” Blanchard pointed out, noting that the focus is on doing everything possible to give those around the table a clear understanding of the case.
Six different disciplines are represented at the MDT table — law enforcement, prosecution, social services, mental health, the Health Department, the medical community and Guardian ad Litem representatives who act as the voice for children in court.
“This program offers a wide array of benefits,” said Sampson County sheriff’s detective Chris Godwin, who along with Sheriff Jimmy Thornton, sits at the table representing county law enforcement. Clinton Police Chief Jay Tilly is also an MDT member.
“This team allows us to better serve children. It gets us all on the same page and we don’t have to duplicate services that, eventually, end up causes more trauma to a child. I think it’s working and working well,” Godwin stressed.
The team trouble shoots cases and representatives from each discipline lends its own brand of advice, a laying-it-all-out-on-the-table approach that provides great insight into individuals and individual cases.
“You have a lot of outside the box thinking this way, and the benefactors are those involved most personally with the cases,” Blanchard pointed out. “Six heads are far better than one, and we are finding that the information that comes our of these meetings has been very, very helpful.”
So helpful, in fact, that many MDT members believe it is speeding up the prosecution of cases, yet another benefit to victims.
With an assistant district attorney at the table, Blanchard said, all the others involved are given a better understanding of what is needed from each agency in order for the case to be prosecuted. “You cannot imagine how helpful that can be. If law enforcement know exactly what they need to provide, and Social Services, too, it moves things through the system so much faster.”
Team member Rusty Brown said he believes the prosecution of cases is not only faster, but also higher, because of the efforts of the team.
“With all of us at the table, we provide a check and balance that is extremely helpful. It helps keep us all on our toes. There’s less chance of anyone dropping the ball on a case this way. We talk about cases, make recommendations and then the next month, someone might ask about the status of that case. It’s a way of ensuring that everything is taken care of.”
The group meets once a month, and so far some 15 cases have already been reviewed — 13 of them sexual abuse cases, the other two dealing with physical abuse.
This month, there were 10 cases on the agenda for review, four of them new ones.
“This is a great thing,” said Bradshaw. “It allows us to follow cases all the way through, and our collaborative work has the potential to prevent some serious issues from occurring.”
The sharing of ideas, all MDT members said, is beneficial to those at the table, but also to those members are trying to help.
“You can see people’s faces, the light bulbs going off, when ideas surface and suggestions fit together,” Godwin said. “It’s a hard-working group of people trying to make the process better. I think it is.”
The ultimate goal, Blanchard stressed, is for a Child Advocacy Center to be opened in Sampson, a long-term hope that all the team members say is necessary.
The center, Blanchard said, is a child friendly place where abuse victims can go to have all interviews and medical exams, eliminating the need for them to visit multiple agencies and deal with multiple people, only compounding the trauma.
“With a Child Advocacy Center, a child has one place to go and they are interviewed by a non-affiliated person trained to interview them delicately and make them feel safe.”
Oftentimes now, Blanchard said, children have to be interviewed multiple times and in multiple places, sometimes having to travel outside the county for evaluations.
“There’s a significant need for this kind of center in Sampson. We realize it takes resources, but we’ve got to get this on our radar and begin planning for it.”
The first steps, MDT members say, have been taken with the formation of the Multi-Disciplinary Team. While the next steps may not be as easy, all those who are currently members are committed to working through the process.
“It will take time, but it’s a need that should be filled,” Godwin said.