When Benita Williams first attended college, she had no inclination to become a social worker.
Her career path changed course at 19 years old, as an undergraduate at Temple University, when she gave birth to her first daughter three months early. With a premature baby to look after, the hospital assigned a social worker to Williams, whose lasting impact inspired her to switch majors.
Over the next two decades, Williams turned a career choice into a life passion, working her way through the ranks of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services and other child welfare organizations. She assisted children who experienced sexual abuse, needed therapeutic interventions, sought new families through adoptions, and more.
Her premature daughter recently graduated medical school and is now a pediatrician. ”It’s humbling to me that this little 19-year-old teen mom, so to speak, is in this position,” Williams said. “Being able to successfully rear a family and rear her career and not be counted out.”
PCA, an independent nonprofit whose mission of healing and justice gives children who experience sexual abuse a safe space to tell their stories, chose Williams, a native Philadelphian, for her deep connections to the city and its diverse communities. In addition to years of experience, Williams brings a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to her new leadership role, which focuses on strengthening children and families while working with different constituencies, including law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers, and more.
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Williams, who succeeds longtime Executive Director Christina Kirchner and Interim Executive Director Paul DiLorenzo, also steps in to oversee the Northeast Regional Children’s Advocacy Center. NRCAC is a federal grant project that uses PCA’s expertise in childhood sexual abuse to help communities in the northeastern United States develop or maintain children’s advocacy centers of their own.
“Benita’s experience demonstrates her lifelong commitment to the children and communities in Philadelphia,” PCA Board President Desiraee Davis said in a statement. “I’m confident her expertise will allow us to deepen our relationships across the city, providing children and families with the support they desperately need and propelling PCA forward.”
After 20 years at DHS, Williams became vice president of the Community Umbrella Agency and Child Welfare Services at Bethanna. But it was a passion for children and families, sparked by the social worker who assisted her family so many years ago that ultimately brought her to PCA. The 30-year-old organization, formerly known as the Children’s Advocacy Center in West Philadelphia, led the way in reforming how officials work with children who experience sexual abuse.
According to Williams, PCA coordinates a process that lessens a child’s trauma while giving them as safe a space as possible.
Using a multidisciplinary approach in a co-located site called the Philadelphia Safety Collaborative, members of several organizations and city departments — PCA, the Philadelphia Police Department’s Special Victims Unit, the Department of Human Services Sexual Abuse Investigation Unit, the District Attorney’s Office, and staff from St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — work together under one roof. Such collaboration allows a child who experiences sexual abuse to be interviewed only once and keeps young victims from having to recall their trauma multiple times.
However, like all other organizations, PCA and the Philadelphia Safety Collaborative were forced to meet the challenges of COVID over the past 18 months. Williams said PCA didn’t miss a beat, using technology where possible to fill in any gaps.
But lockdowns and quarantines had a greater effect on the work as a whole.
“During COVID, our case numbers have gone down,” Williams said. “Schools are probably the number-one reporters of child abuse. And so, since children were not in school, the numbers have gone down.”
The former Interim Executive Director noted in a statement that stay-at-home orders placed vulnerable children at increased risk of abuse. DiLorenzo, who was a founding member of the organization, worked to keep the doors open throughout the pandemic.
“I could not be more pleased and proud of our PCA Team over these past twenty months. Because of them, PCA never faltered, and we never shut our doors to the kids and families who needed us the most,” DiLorenzo said in a statement. “Now, as we think about the future of PCA, we welcome a new Executive Director, Benita Williams. Benita is a highly accomplished and respected child welfare professional. PCA is so fortunate to have her to lead the team.”
The hope is that, with schools reopening for in-person learning in the region, more teachers will be available to fulfill their mandated reporter roles. Having someone who can listen to a child, especially in cases of sexual abuse, is important, Williams said. According to her, adults often dismiss what children have to say, but bringing justice to those who experience sexual abuse means listening to them and placing value on what they have to say.
Williams’ immediate goal is to keep PCA up and running as the Delta variant surges through the city. She has a few longterm projects up her sleeve as well. But she considers herself fortunate to have such a solid and dedicated staff working alongside her to help the organization complete its mission.
She wants to remind people that if they encounter a child in need of assistance or suspect someone might be the victim of sexual abuse, they should call DHS or the child abuse hotline — even if the abuse is only suspected. Let the experts do their job, Williams said.
For now, Williams is humbled to follow her passion and have such an impact on the community and city in which she grew up.
And as for her daughter? “She’s working on preemies, as she used to be,” Williams said.-30-
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