As an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, Amy Shadoin, PhD, envisioned one day working as an attorney to empower people unable to speak on their own behalf. But with each psychology class she took, Shadoin grew more interested in personality, behavior modification and other psychology-related topics than in law.

While pursuing cognitive psychology doctoral training at the University of Alabama a few years later, she realized she could use that training to help empower a particularly voiceless group: abused children.

So, after a stint teaching research methods to nursing students at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Shadoin went to work researching the effects of child maltreatment on victims and their families at the Huntsville-based National Children's Advocacy Center. The center serves as the national model for cross-disciplinary children's advocacy centers (CACs) that examine, investigate, treat and prosecute child abuse cases locally.

Formed in 1985, the National CAC provides U.S. and international continuing-education training of child abuse professionals, as well as prevention, intervention and treatment services to fight child abuse and neglect. Among its offerings are therapy services for families of abused children and the school-based educational program Stop Child Abuse and Neglect.

Shadoin says her work at the center fulfills her undergraduate ambitions.

"Every day brings new challenges or surprises as we use psychology to better people's lives," she says.

Promoting prevention

As the National CAC's research officer, Shadoin studies various means of fostering victims' resiliency, works with program managers to write grant proposals to support the center's programs and services and evaluates the center's national programs and impact. She recently found, for example, that traditional joint child protective services- and police-led child abuse investigations are 36 percent more expensive than investigations conducted in a community that has a CAC. In fact, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Regina B. Schofield highlighted that finding in a speech to the National Children's Alliance, a nonprofit membership organization providing services to CACs, in May.

Another facet of Shadoin's job is speaking out for children who are abused and neglected at national conferences and seminars. The presentations often highlight CAC's impact on victims, their families and their communities.

"I get to interact with so many different groups across the country, locally with other community-based organizations, and with student [interns] from different majors and backgrounds," she says.

Shadoin researches psychoeducational programs targeting caregivers to help them cope with their child's victimization.

She also collaborates with other violence-prevention researchers on national research projects like the multi-site National Evaluation of Child Advocacy Centers, a comprehensive, national evaluation of CACs led by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

The common thread in her work is improving the National CAC's programs and services.

"Amy looks at the big picture," says Pam Clasgens, manager of the center's Healthy Families Program. "She brings our data to life and allows us to figure out what we're trying to achieve and how we can achieve it."

Interdisciplinary enrichment

In looking at the big picture, Shadoin collaborates closely with the center's 53 staff members. For instance, she's working with the center's interim clinical director, a social worker, to evaluate the forensic evaluations the center conducts when a child alleges abuse. The clinical director is concerned that the center's eight-session investigations might be too mentally draining on preschoolers. Shadoin is investigating how four or six sessions compare with eight. She's also working with the center's prevention director, a former teacher, to better track the prevention programs' outcomes. While Shadoin uses her psychological background to develop the methodology, the prevention director uses her education background to help determine appropriate markers of educational and developmental progress.

The center's interdisciplinary environment improves everyone's work, as well as the center's overall effectiveness, says Shadoin.

"When people stay in their same little group of people with similar ideas, they can get tunnel vision," she says. "But here, when you turn to a social worker, or a psychiatrist or others to look at a problem, it energizes your perspective on what psychology can do."