This East Norriton Center Supports Victims of Child Abuse

Mission Kids quells squabbles and keeps everyone on task to benefit victims of child abuse.

In late November, district attorneys from throughout Pennsylvania convened in State College. The topics of discussion: domestic violence and sexual assault. As representatives from each of the 67 counties detailed their situations and offered various tactics to combat both, they marveled over a unique resource Montgomery County DA Kevin Steele had at his disposal. Based in East Norriton, Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center works with 50 police departments in Montgomery County to bring “healing and justice” to victims of child abuse.

“We’re in a great place because of Mission Kids,” says Steele. “We’re blessed.”

Mission Kids began developing its model in 2008 and started seeing clients the following year. Its multiplatform approach to treating victims and working to eliminate child abuse involves a staff of 31 case workers, family advocates, mental health professionals and educators. It plays its most crucial role when cases of abuse are reported and investigations begin. Police, DAs and staff at the county’s Office of Children and Youth Services all need vital information on the case—and that requires speaking to the victim.

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A forensic interviewer with Mission Kids meets with the child, documenting the facts and treating the victim with empathy and care. That single interview yields all the details needed for a trial. It also keeps competition and territorialism among agencies and law enforcement officials to a minimum. “It’s a team working together to do the best job for the child,” Steele says.

Sixteen years ago, when Montgomery County DA Risa Vetri Ferman was looking to create an organization like Mission Kids, she turned to Abbie Newman. Mission Kids’ founder grew up on Long Island, New York, and began her career as a pediatric nurse. She later attended law school and spent 20 years with Philadelphia-based firm Post & Schell.

To get Mission Kids off the ground, Newman coordinated a daunting array of county constituencies, including 50 different police departments, the DA’s office, child welfare agencies and political figures. Today, the various organizations work in concert. “Everybody talks to each other,” Newman says. “Instead of the police and the DA seeing things in black and white, they get together and see shades of gray. Everybody gets the benefit of everybody else’s expertise. The investigations are better.”

Mission Kids’ proactive approach is its calling card—and it also involves outreach, education, advocacy, treatment, counseling and support. Newman and her staff have worked around the world to help end child abuse. “Justice can be defined in a lot of ways,” she says. “For one child, it can be as simple as someone hearing their story, getting the awful secret off their chest and being believed so they can get on with their life. For another, it could be a criminal investigation, a trial in a court of law and a sentencing.”

Leslie Slingsby, Mission Kids’ CEO of services and operations, has been with the organization since 2017. She arrived with a strong background in child advocacy, and she marvels at the way Mission Kids brings everyone together in pursuit of the same goal—something that doesn’t always happen elsewhere. “People’s egos get put aside,” Slingsby says. “We’re all comfortable with disagreements and hard conversations.”

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(From left) Mission Kids mental health outcome specialist Cyndi Woodruff with family advocates Adrian Martinez Muñoz and Adrienne Cavanaugh, and family advocate supervisor Liz Nolan.
(From left) Mission Kids mental health outcome specialist Cyndi Woodruff with family advocates Adrian Martinez Muñoz and Adrienne Cavanaugh, and family advocate supervisor Liz Nolan. Photo by Ed Williams.

And it can get messy, with debates over which Montgomery County agency should take the lead. In other cases, laws prohibit some officials from stepping in. “People have to understand that everyone here has a role to help children,” Slingsby says. “It’s not about whether it’s my case or my career or my office or my workload. It’s about the child first.”

Much of what happens is never known—or victims don’t talk about it until it’s often too late to prosecute the abuser. Regardless, victims can still seek assistance from Mission Kids. “When I’m out in public, many times an adult will come up to me and reveal that they were abused,” Newman says.

Mission Kids continues to add services. It shares space with Laurel House, a comprehensive domestic violence agency, providing a temporary place to stay for victims and family members. It has also increased its output of education programs on prevention.

Even so, there are more requests for programs than Mission Kids can handle, underscoring the reality that there’s still plenty of work to be done. Newman notes that one in 10 children will be sexually abused before the age of 18. “That’s better than when I started Mission Kids in 2008,” she says. “Then, it was one in five.”

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