Jill founded The Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) of Southwest Florida 33 years ago and remains its CEO. “In the early 1980s there were no services for abused children, and there was a movement to begin one as a pilot project. At first it was me, then we hired a second employee; today we have a fantastic staff and our own building. We serve over
11,000 people annually, when that first year was less than 100.”
CAC of Southwest Florida has the fifth-highest referral rate in the state because of its close relationships with law enforcement and the Depart-Type your paragraph here.
ment of Children and Families. It offers more programs for children and families than
any other advocacy center in Florida, and only a handful nationally exceed it. Yet for all
these achievements Jill says “we remain a ‘dark agency.’ When families work with other social service organizations, they can talk about their back story then brag about their success. But no one we benefit shouts our accomplishments out to neighbors and friends, family and coworkers, because that would admit the worst kind of abuse occurred in their home.”
Val, the Director of Clinical and Prevention Services, oversees Family Alliance, CAC’s
therapeutic services program. “Children begin treatment because an adult mistreated,
maltreated, or abused them, whether it be physical, mental, or sexual. We also treat
children who have witnessed domestic violence or been a victim of bullying.
During the initial phase of treatment, the child is usually exhibiting trauma symptoms
and experiencing a high level of anxiety; in addition, the child is struggling with trust
issues, and often feels ashamed. Then suddenly one day you see it,” marvels Val. “They
come out the other side! They emerge, return to school, play with friends, and nightmares end. It’s a joyous occasion.”
Prevention Services encompasses four vitally important programs that benefit not only the clients, but the community as a whole. Pine Manor is a blighted neighborhood
in South Fort Myers where violent and illegal activity is a daily occurrence. CAC
has been a committed partner with the Pine Manor Neighborhood Association for over a
decade, and provides a safe place for the children to come after school and during the
summer. Staff provide positive reinforcement through education and fun field trips to places and events the kids would otherwise never experience. The main push is to broaden and improve reading skills because “If you can read, you can make it in
life,” Val philosophizes correctly. Val proudly states that “CAC thrives greatly
due to our willingness to partner and collaborate with four community agencies
They come out the other side! They emerge, return to school, play with friends, and
nightmares end. It’s a joyous occasion.”
CAC would not be able to assist residents of South Fort Myers with life’s basic needs without its strong relationship with United Way. Childcare of Southwest Florida provides affordable child care for area families, and without their willingness to collaborate, CAC would not be able to provide family advocacy and educational services through its Family First program. Lastly, CAC has had a longstanding and successful partnership with The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida and the Golisano Children’s Hospital to provide parenting education classes to court-ordered clients as well as community parents who want to enhance their parenting skills.
One of the most recent additions to CAC that Val also oversees is pet therapy. “First we teach the kids dogs are their friends, then the puppies usually win them over quick, and the children slowly unwind and release their emotions. Animals offer unconditional love, are non-judgmental and safe, and alleviate anxiety.”
Sally Beckett, Director of the Child Protection Team, and her coworkers are the first CAC staff to see the children who come to the agency. Sally cautions that not every complaint is abuse and “it is just as important we dismiss those. When we document a proven case, however, we immediately initiate the healing process during the examination by telling the child this is not their fault, or something they deserved because of their actions. Everything CAC does is all about helping the child heal, and it begins with us.”
The Child Protection Team is on-call 24/7: “We sadly are frequently here to meet the police, potential victim, and often family at 3 a.m.,” says Sally, “with all emphasis on the child. From that instant, our goal is to allow no further harm.” A crucial component of CAC is all treatments occur under one roof, allowing the child to know they are safe. “Let me be clear that I have a horrible job,” emphasizes Sally, “but each day I take home something positive. Children are so beautiful and resilient, and even in tragedy funny and precious.” Sally does occasionally experience the butterfly effect: “We are often expert witnesses in court cases, and we will see the child months later, after Val and her colleagues counsel them. They are brave little souls, in the process of recovering from the effects of the abuse they suffered. It is powerful and impacting to see first-hand, and validates all we do.”
Jill likes to imagine the thousands of children influenced by the Children’s Advocacy Center, and believes despite what they survived, they are better and healthier adults. Sally agrees that CAC “provides shelter through the storm that leads to recovery, allowing us all despite everything to focus on the positive.” Jill continues to dream of the day she and her colleagues join the ranks of the unemployed because “that will mean all children are safe.”
To report potential abuse call the Florida Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE or your local law enforcement agency. For more information see www.cac-swfl.org. The Children’s Advocacy Center – Stopping Child Abuse One Child at a Time!