Child Center offers help and hope
Boone News Service
Last year, there were 126 reports of child abuse and neglect in Escambia County, and nine offenders were prosecuted by the county. Now Escambia County has a center to lessen trauma to abused children and enhance prosecution of offenders.
The Escambia County Regional Child Advocacy Center, a non-profit agency and a "Pilot Program" with the Alabama State Network of Child Advocacy Centers, works to protect abused children and help them heal from the trauma of abuse.
Before the center was started in August 2002, the nearest child advocacy center to Escambia County was Care House in Bay Minette.
In it's beginning, the center was nurtured by Hope Place, a non-profit organization that provides family support and services. Hope Place provided advice on acquiring non-profit status and applying for grants and provided offices before the center moved to it's current location at 313 Court Street.
Escambia County Commission provided the location for the center, and it has been located there since November.
Initial financial support and equipment were provided by District Judge David Jordan and District Attorney Mike Godwin to help the center get started.
The center has received other funding through grants from local sources, the Children's Trust Fund for a community awareness program, ADECA Victim Services and the National Children's Alliance.
Also, the Escambia County Sheriff's Office assigned a full-time investigator, Kenny Brazile, to work with the center on identifying cases of child abuse.
The center grew from a "need for a location that would make children feel safe in a warm, home-like facility and to lessen the traumatic investigative process," said executive director Kathy Hill.
"Children who are sexually abused are often abused by someone they love and trust," Hill said. "Many abusive situations leave children feeling abandoned, unworthy and alone."
This is why the center makes one of its primary goals to protect the child from unnecessary trauma after the traumatic experience of living with abuse.
"Children have to endure multiple interviews by lawyers, police, doctors, social workers and counselors. Often these interviews are happening in undesirable settings such as police stations, courthouses, school hallways and offices, none of which are conducive to the emotional well being of children," Hill said.
"I think of how many adults never heal from this process," said Hope Place director Vicki Fussell.
When a case of suspected child abuse is reported to the Department of Human Resources, investigators do an initial assessment, and if it is determined that abuse occurred, charges are brought against the offender.
The child is brought to center with only non-offending family members to determine what services will be needed. No offender is allowed in the center, maintaining the feel that it is a safe environment for the child.
The center also provides "court school" to prepare the child for what will happen when their case goes to court. The center acts as an advocate for the child through entire process, and it is available to the family as long as they need it.
"We are speaking for someone who can't speak for themselves," said Fussell.
One of its main goals is to make offenders accountable because children often need to see that to heal, Hill said.
The center uses a multi-disciplinary team approach to the investigation of child sexual abuse, severe physical abuse and neglect.
On the team are representatives from the district attorney's office, law enforcement, mental health, the medical community, the Alabama Department of Human Resources, education, social services, Poarch Band of Creek Indians, and the Child Advocacy Center.
Before acting as director to the child advocacy center, Hill worked in child services for 28 years, including 22 years in Escambia County.
Brazile has been with the Sheriff's Office for eight years and an investigator for three years. He was assigned to work full-time with the Child Advocacy Center in Oct. 2003.
Board members for the child advocacy center are Mike Godwin, chairman; Grover Smith, vice-chairman; Vicki Fussell, secretary; Carolyn White, Treasurer; and David Stokes.