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Mother Studying to Become a Child Advocate
A brief conversation at a Fourth of July barbecue made all the difference for Letresa Sweetser.
A woman Sweetser met at the Independence Day celebration was carrying a pager, and the pager went off. Sweetser realized the pager’s owner was being called in to work.
She had a question in the back of her mind: “What kind of job requires someone to leave a picnic on a holiday and go to work?”
It turned out the woman was a forensic interviewer for the Children’s Safety Center (CSC) of Washington County, and the call meant a child needed to be interviewed as part of an investigation. Sweetser was intrigued.
She followed up later to learn more about the woman’s work. She visited her at the CSC and asked questions about the world of child advocacy.
Along the way in her search for information, she discovered a certificate program in child advocacy studies at NorthWest Arkansas Community College. Entering the program wasn’t something to be done on a whim.
The thought of attending college was daunting for Sweetser. She has two sons and a daughter and a lot of responsibilities. Her husband was supportive, but she felt scared about the thought of returning to school.
Then Sweetser attended some of the classes and heard from the professionals who were teaching the courses. She was blown away.
“These were full-time professionals,” she recalls. “I was so glued to everything they said. The way they presented information was in giving real accounts of life moments. That was so impactful.”
There are so many pre-conceived notions that people have about college, Sweetser says. Her instruction in child advocacy studies was a completely different experience from what she expected.
She was an intern for the Melba Shewmaker Southern Region National Child Protection Training Center on the NWACC campus. (The center is associated with Gundersen NCPTC, which has its main training center on the campus of Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota.) That experience shaped her impressions of the possible career path and thoughts about next steps.
She volunteered at the Children’s Advocacy Center of Benton County as part of her service learning activities. “That was motivational and life-changing,” she says of her experiences there. More recently, she has become the part-time office coordinator for the nonprofit organization. “I am loving my job,” she says.
Sweetser’s finishing up the courses she needs to earn her technical certificate in child advocacy studies. She has an interest in becoming a forensic interviewer, but making that a reality will come some time later as her children get older and more independent. For now, she knows that the work of child advocacy in general is where her heart lies. “I think the child advocacy studies will be the perfect gateway to what I want to do,” she says.
Sweetser also has a word of advice for people entering a wide array of callings and careers. “Even if you’re not planning on getting into child advocacy, there are so many advantages to the certificate,” she says. If one’s degree is in a different area, the certificate will add to the quality of that degree, she notes.
Dr. Deirdre Slavik, department chair of behavioral sciences at NWACC, praises the passion and enthusiasm Sweetser brings to the field. The faculty member is hoping that more people become familiar with what may be a well-kept secret — the college’s offerings in this key area. The child advocacy studies curriculum was established in conjunction with the work of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center in Winona, Minnesota.
CAST focuses on developing students’ understanding of the various factors that lead to child maltreatment and of various existing responses to incidents of child maltreatment, so they work more effectively within various systems and institutions that respond to these incidents, according to the Gundersen NCPTC website.
In addition to the technical certificate that Sweetser is pursuing and a certificate of proficiency, the college now offers an associate of arts degree with a child advocacy studies emphasis. The content is ideal for many professions, Slavik says, including those professions such as social services, education and health care, where the practitioners may be required by state law to report incidents of suspected child abuse or neglect.