First lady champions advocacy center's work
April is National Child Abuse Awareness Month. The fact that there is a dire need for such a month in the United States to bring awareness to a fight that hundreds of thousands of innocent children face each day is a hard pill to swallow.
Some reports show as many as one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. It’s hard to think about a 5-year-old with a sexually transmitted disease, or a 12-year-old rape victim who just found out she is pregnant, or a 2-month-old infant beat within inches of his life by his mother, or father, or baby sitter or teacher.
And yet, those situations are the reason for getting out of bed every day for Karen Wright, executive director of the Cooper-Anthony Mercy Child Advocacy Center, which has served Hot Springs and surrounding areas since 2003.
Wright and the team at the center see and work with children who have been neglected, maltreated, physically or sexually abused or drug-endangered.
Child advocacy centers are safe, child-friendly environments where a comprehensive and coordinated approach is taken in response to allegations of child abuse. CAMCAC is one of fewer than 20 child advocacy centers in the state and is the only hospital-based center in Arkansas. It serves Hot Springs and the surrounding counties and expanded its service area in 2015 by opening a satellite center in Mena, and a second satellite center in Saline
County on April 12 of this year.
CAMCAC works as part of a multidisciplinary team which includes Arkansas State Police: Crimes Against Children Division, Arkansas Department of Human Services, Division of Children and Family Services, law enforcement, prosecutors, mental health professionals, medical health professionals, and other local and state agencies.
The process for a child to be seen at a child advocacy center is done through referrals by any of the above entities.
Wright said that the CAMCAC meets every other week with members of the team, “because we want to make sure that no child falls between the cracks. We make sure that report is being followed up on.”
The need for child advocacy centers can better be understood after understanding what children face without them.
“Before child advocacy centers, sometimes the child would have to tell the teacher their story, then they’d have to tell the principal, then they’d have to go to adult resources, then they’d have to go talk to the sheriff — they would have to tell their story over and over again, and the story might change. They’re just kids,” said Wright. “The idea is that we bring the teams here, all those people can watch the interview, and the child does not have to repeat it over and over.”
After a report has been made to the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline, CAMCAC coordinates with the assigned investigator with the goal that the child will only have to share his/her story one time. Communication among the multidisciplinary team makes the investigation less traumatizing for the children and their caregivers.
Once brought to the center, the child tells their story to a trained interviewer who knows the right questions to ask in a way that does not re-traumatize the child. Then, the case is reviewed by all involved team members and they make decisions together about how to help the child based on the interview. The child and family will then receive the mental health services from their assigned counselor/advocate, and the case is presented to the district attorney and proceeds to move through the justice system.
Resources such as anatomical dolls and drawing boards may be used to help the child disclose information.
A full-time on-site nurse is available to perform necessary exams.
“We’re blessed because we do have a full-time nurse, and we’re able to provide those services,” Wright said. “Any time a child discloses penetration or any kind of oral sex, they are seen by our nurse.”
Wright added that all medical exams are nonintrusive and can be used to gather DNA and test for disease or pregnancy.
The need for these services is evident in a case that Wright recalled in which a child’s DNA was used to convict her abuser.
“One of our nurses, one time the child had disclosed that the offender had licked her face, so when she went to do that exam she swabbed her cheek and they were able to get DNA and prosecute from that,” she said.
Possibly one of the best things about child advocacy centers like CAMCAC is that all services offered within the center are completely free of charge.
“There’s no out-of-pocket expense because we know that could be a block for families to get our services. That includes all mental health, that includes the sexual assault nurse exam, the interviews with child advocates that help the parents from the day they walk into the center, all the way through trial or hearings or anything that we can help with,” Wright said.
“One of the things that’s really important, too, is we do provide that trauma-focused counseling for the child and we’re also able to provide resources for the parent. A lot of times we’ll have a mom come in and say, ‘This happened to me, too, but I’ve never told anybody.’ We want to make sure that parent can come here as well for healing because they can’t impart what they don’t have. If they haven’t received healing and growth from the event that happened, then they can’t impart that to their child.”
Services provided by the center include forensic interviews, forensic medical exams, child advocacy, mental health services, prevention programs, and training programs. All of these services are provided in a neutral, child-friendly environment, so as not to distract or sway the child in any way.
In addition, the center can help the child and family with their spiritual needs.
“A lot of times when kids are abused, they ask, ‘Why did God do this?’ We tell them, ‘God didn’t do this. He never left you,’ because we don’t want them to go into their childhood with distortions about who they are or distortions about God,” Wright added.
CAMCAC will hold its annual Child Abuse Prevention Rally & Luncheon at 11:30 a.m. on April 19. The rally is a way to highlight Child Abuse Awareness Month and honor those that are on the front line of the war against child abuse.
This year’s rally will be held at the center, located at 216 McAuley Court.
Returning this year as the event’s keynote speaker is Arkansas’ first lady Susan Hutchinson, who holds the subject of child abuse prevention near and dear to her heart.
Though she said she never knew of anyone who had been abused when she was growing up, she later met a friend who had been abused by her father and learned that the need for centers such as CAMCAC is very real.
“My friend had needed a child advocacy center in her childhood because her dad was a pedophile, so I knew the need was real, but I didn’t understand that the need is propagated 90 percent or more of the time by someone that the child or teenager should be loved by, protected by, sheltered by, and someone they trust completely,” Hutchinson said. “It can be someone in the household, next of kin, married into the family, a teacher,
somebody at church, preacher, scout leader, volunteer, soccer coach, nanny — there’s no profile of what to expect.
“Most likely it’s somebody that everyone else loves and would just never, ever guess. It’s crazy, who has a dark heart, who’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s very scary, and I say that only to be aware, because that’s the problem in a child ever being believed. They’re saying bad things about somebody that is ‘totally good’ to everybody else, that everybody loves and trusts. It divides families because they’ll take sides with the accused rather than the child. But through the child advocacy center and the expertise that we offer in visiting with a child, we get to the truth on behalf of the child.”
As the experts work to get to the bottom of the truth, Hutchinson said, in the meantime the child can proceed on with his or her healing process.
“The expert counseling that we use, the trauma-focused cognitive behavior, that’s what works. Your other counseling is nice, but it’s not effective to the issues for the victim, and we do that free of charge. And it’s long-term, for however long they need it. We want them healed,” she said. “So, if it should go to court, by the time the court date comes around, the child is strong and sure and they can, even at 5 years old, be in the courtroom and be able to talk about it.”
The effects of unattended trauma on a child often don’t wait until they’re adults. Instead, it starts right away and can creep up in the form of changed personalities or moods and bad behavior including bed-wetting, lessened interest in learning, plummeting grades, or being scared of certain people, including baby sitters or caretakers.
“Parents need to be aware, if your child is complaining about someone and they’re telling you specifically why, those are red flags. It may not be a discipline problem here; you need to investigate and you need to listen to them and accommodate their fears and look at it more closely,” Hutchinson said.
If an individual suspects that a child is being abused, depending on how severe it is or how immediate the need is to get that person away from the child, they can call their local police or call the Child Abuse Hotline, which is transferred directly over to the Arkansas State Police: Crimes Against Children Division.
The phone numbers to call are 800-482-5964 or 844-SAVE-A-CHILD.
“It’s got two extra letters in there, but don’t worry about it — it will roll directly over to the state police hotline,” Hutchinson said, adding that callers should have ready as much information as possible, including the name of the child, where they live, and who the suspected accuser is.
If the life of a child is in imminent danger, call the nearest law enforcement agency or 911 immediately and follow up with a call to the hotline.
“You never know who else has called in, or who might be calling in after you. Perpetrators are not known to limit themselves. They’ve been known to harm siblings in the same family without the other one knowing it. It’s a really hidden action that they can get away with, and it’s time they stopped getting away with it,” Hutchinson said.
“I can’t say enough good things about the Cooper-Anthony Clinic and the association, the Mercy Health system. Keep in mind, this incident of sexual abuse is more common than cancer. We just don’t know who’s suffering. Our goal is to help those that are suffering and to stop the cycle, so it becomes more of a rarity or an incidental thing as compared to a way of life or a generational thing, which it is right now.”
The CAMCAC will recognize one front line worker for outstanding service to children with the Superhero Award at the April 19 event. Patrons of the CAMCAC will also be honored for their generous support of the center.
Lunch will be served directly following the rally.
Visit http://www.mercy.net/childadvocacyrally for more information.