Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Penn State and Syracuse

As many of you know I was a co-founder and first board chairman of the Tennessee 9th Judicial District Child Advocacy Center (CAC) in 1999.  It now is named "Kids First."  We treat ages 3-17.  Our mission is to intervene in cases of child abuse.  Nothing less than a herculean effort by many gifted and determined people was needed to bring this project to success.  Our dedicated board members worked with state, county and city governments to assure we met all criteria and, of course, to beg for money.  I wore out the knees in a dozen pair of slacks from begging, pleading and grovelling.  Then again, I shouldn't complain, it was excellent practice for marriage.

Raising money in Appalachia was like cleaning I-95 with a toothbrush.  After constantly hitting the bricks days and nights with our message, people began to listen and understand the child abuse issue and the epidemic proportions it had reached in our district.  We presented in every conceivable place we could.  We talked to audiences ranging from a lone individual to gatherings of hundreds. After a year and a half of exhausting efforts, we started receiving donations from various sources including families, businesses, churches, civic organizations and governments.  We also applied for grants from every foundation with a mission even remotely close to ours.  Believe me, it was no picnic filling out those requests for proposals.  As I look back, I'm amazed we pulled it off, but somehow we did.  My hat goes off to this stellar group of volunteer board members who worked so diligently, giving so much time and effort to our cause.  God bless you all. 

Before we established the CAC, an abused child would submit to an investigative process almost as traumatic as the actual event.  An example would go like this:

Little Shirley, a six-year old, acts out in class and the teacher observes this behavior and decides it's suspicious.  She calls Child Services.  By law, this department has to respond within two days.  The next day they send a case worker to the family home to interview little Shirley to determine if something is wrong.  Can you imagine little Shirley having to tell an adult stranger about the worst thing that's happened to her in her whole life and possibly in front of the perpetrator?  To the best of her ability, the case worker will determine who the non-offending individual is so they can deal with him or her.  In an extreme case they remove the child from the home, but not usually.  If the case worker feels there is enough evidence to proceed, the local police are informed.

Unknown to most not living in Appalachia, local police stations often are also jails and to describe them as throwbacks to medieval times is more than complimentary.  Appalachia is a poverty-ridden area and can't afford modern jails.  Most of the time they are pretty old, beat up, dingy, dirty edifices  Many times the inmates are lounging around out of the cells chatting with the police personnel.  Can you imagine little Shirley carted to an environment like this to once again tell her traumatic story to another total stranger and this one in a uniform of authority?  During my research, I visited some of these jails and always was happier than hell to get away...scary places.

Weeks later Shirley has to go to the District Attorney's office and disclose her awful story again.  By now her story may change a little because of so many retellings and time gone by.  The prosecution rate is low, which means these molesters are still lurking out there waiting for their next victim.

Next our six-year old girl has to be examined by a doctor trained in child forensics.  This is a specialty and sometimes it takes months to get an appointment because the case load is so heavy.  Some kids handle this waiting period well while others don't.  Their anxiety level builds with each passing day.  The exam itself requires special equipment and is invasive.  No child should have to go through it.

Finally, though not always finally, comes therapy for Shirley.

Not a very pleasant story is it and I haven't included all the details.  Do you know a little six-year old girl?  Can you imagine her going through all this?  Do you understand why I say the process is as traumatic as the actual act?

The CAC changed things.  We at first rented but eventually built a child-friendly place to bring the kids to.  (See picture below)  All the land, furniture, toys, handmade blankets, equipment and many services were donated.  All the wall paintings were done by volunteers from a local art guild.

The kids initially come with fear and anxiety, so we have a playroom to relax in and wonderful volunteers to play with.  The room is decorated in fanciful colors and themes.  Then, when it's time, we have a professionally-trained forensic interviewer on staff who conducts the ONE-TIME interview in a specially designed room with a one-way mirror.  In an adjacent room, unbeknown to the child, the interview is observed by a team including the CAC director, a member of the police from the city or county where the child lives, a member of the district attorney's office and a doctor or nurse .  During the interview,  if any of the team members needs a question answered, they can communicate with the interviewer by way of headsets.  The CAC even keeps the rape kits and chain of evidence.  Shirley has to tell her story ONE TIME and in a warm, child- friendly environment where kids get validation and support.

We also have on staff a specially trained volunteer doctor and nurse who do the forensic exam.  The medical room is also finished in a children's decor.  Each child is given a soft handmade blanket before the exam to take home.  After the exam they go to our toy closet to choose a toy to take home too.  We strive to do everything possible to comfort the kids.

Please notice our sign in the picture below.  The logo was designed and donated by my daughter, Kris, who is a graphic designer and marketing professional.  Some of our staff is pictured.  We use the car for our outreach program to schools, churches and other groups.  Teaching young people about awareness is important and helps to break the abuse cycle.

We have two certified therapists to engage, not just the abused child, but also the remaining non-abuser family members, in our counseling program.  Therapy is extended until needed no more.

Our staff also includes a person to help the family through the court process.  Like all of our services, it's free of charge.

In 2010 we had 342 cases and that just covers an area of four small counties.  Those are reported cases only.  The national statistics claim one in every five children are abused in some form.  Because of our efforts, kids and families heal and go on to brighter futures.  Since we opened ten years ago the prosecution rate has risen dramatically. 

So, what do I think of Sandusky at Penn State and Fine at Syracuse?  If they're found guilty, I don't think there is an adequate punishment to mete out.  I think the same is true of authorities that allow this behavior and cover it up.  I've seen way too many little Shirleys.

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