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McMahon Ryan Child Advocacy Center aims to be a national leader in an evolving field

Sign in front of rounded brick and concrete building
Natasha Senjanovic
McMahon Ryan is only one of two child advocacy centers in the U.S. to be accredited to work with sex trafficking and physical abuse victims

The McMahon Ryan Child Advocacy Center is just one of two centers in the U.S. to get three new national accreditations – which should bring long-term benefits to the Syracuse-based nonprofit, in an evolving field.

The three new categories are for child abuse prevention education, as well as for physical abuse and “commercial exploitation" (sex trafficking) services. All of which the center has been offering for years, says Executive Director Colleen Merced. However, the new certifications will allow for more future services and outreach, because “accreditation has levels,” she says.

“If you're at the highest level, you can request the highest amount of money from the [state or county] Office of Children and Family Services,” said Merced. “It's all kind of linked and tied together, and it looks good for other applications for grant funding streams.”

Government funds are vital to nonprofits like McMahon Ryan, which Merced says see roughly 1,500 kids and helps 3,000 people annually. Rather than being re-traumatized, by having to go to various city or county organizations seeking help, at places like McMahon Ryan children and their families access most of the resources they need under one roof.

“We have a medical clinic through the Children's Hospital… We have social workers that are here from Child [sic] and Family Services. We have New York State Police, [the] District Attorney's Office, the Sheriff's office, Syracuse police. We have therapists, advocates and case managers, all on site,” said Merced.

However, not all child advocacy centers (CACs) are equipped to handle all cases, says Alyssa Todd, accreditation coordinator of the National Children's Alliance. That’s the group that certifies the country’s CACs, which she says have typically addressed just traditional models of child sex abuse. Those are instances when the perpetrator is a family member, family friend, or someone else known to the child.

However, over the years advocacy centers realized there was a need to address other issues as well.

Today, said Todd, “we have centers all across the country that are doing varying levels of work in regards to what we call CSAC, commercial sexual exploitation of children,” as well physical abuse and prevention outreach. All of which go beyond the 10 core standards that CACs have to meet for their base accreditation, and require new best-practice guidelines, based on the latest research, she says.

“So that a kid who walks into a CAC in San Francisco gets the same services as a kid who walks into the CAC in Syracuse…[or] a kid who walks into my CAC in Brattleboro, Vermont with a teeny tiny population,” said Todd. That way, the children are “all getting the same quality of services and know that those that are seeing them are trained in the same way and have the same level of experience.”

Todd says more CACs nationwide are applying for the new categories, depending on the services they offer. The new accreditations require an additional, rigorous application process but can only be requested when a CAC goes through its regular re-accreditation process, as McMahon Ryan did.

Natasha Senjanovic teaches radio broadcasting at the Newhouse School while overseeing student journalists at WAER and creating original reporting for the station. She can also be heard hosting All Things Considered some weekday afternoons.