A safe harbor

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 3, 2005

Imagine being a child who has suffered a terrible trauma. Then imagine having to go into a police station or an attorney’s office – intimidating atmospheres for many an adult, much less, a youngster – to talk about what has happened.

There’s a place of comfort and hope near Crenshaw County that helps children who has experienced abuse in its many forms.

A safe place for children

There you will find child-sized chairs, comfy couches, building blocks, color crayons for drawing and stuffed animals to cuddle. Fish dart about in a big aquarium.

On some walls hang children’s drawings, while on others, colorful seaside murals catch the eye.

Welcome to Safe Harbor, the Butler County Children’s Advocacy Center, Inc. Located at 107 Caldwell St. in Greenville, the agency serves some 200 children and youth in Butler, Crenshaw and Lowndes Counties each year. It is one of the 33 local agencies receiving monies from the Butler County United Fund.

&uot;We deal with children, sometimes as young as two or three, who have suffered any type of abuse, be it physical, emotional or sexual,&uot; Safe Harbor Director Kathy Smyth said.

The children are referred to the center by the Department of Human Resources, the District Attorney’s office, law enforcement and sometimes, the schools.

&uot;A teacher may be concerned because a child is acting out at school, for example, and we do an assessment for the child to try and find out what’s causing the behavior,&uot; Smyth explained.

Forensic interviews and evaluations are conducted for the child abuse cases, with follow-up counseling and therapy services provided to the children.

Art supplies, toys and games, along with the expert skills of Carolyn Spencer, a certified play therapist who teaches at AUM, allow the children to explore their emotions in a comfortable, non-threatening environment.

&uot;It’s absolutely fascinating to see the kids able to act out their frustrations and fears through their play and their arts and crafts activities. It’s all intertwined into their therapy,&uot; Smyth said.

Laurie Shoemaker and Carrie Mega serve as forensic interviewers and counselors for the children aided by Safe Harbor.

&uot;We follow what we call a multi-disciplinary team approach with all our children. We work with and meet with DHR, law enforcement, and the DA’s office each week to discuss the cases, new referrals, the possible need for medical exams and other issues,&uot; Smyth said.

Becoming a survivor

For the team at Safe Harbor, it’s about more than simply exploring the abuse a child has experienced.

&uot;One thing we often look into, for example, is getting a child involved in extra-curricular activities at somewhere like the Y or the Boys and Girls Club,&uot; Smyth said.

&uot;It’s about more than helping them overcome the trauma; it’s also helping the children move from victims to survivors, and giving them the tools to do that.&uot;

While the budget crunches that hit state agencies in the past few years forced some cutbacks in staff size and hours, Smyth said Safe Harbor has &uot;never had to turn anybody away.&uot;

Covering the ‘middle ground’

&uot;We’ve always been able to provide the services the children needed. And in large part, that has been due to the help of the United Fund.&uot;

Smyth said the monies supplied through the United Fund go to direct services, such as interviews, evaluations and counseling; to supply Christmas gifts to those children not served by DHR, and to pay for training for professionals who are part of the multi-disciplinary team.

&uot;Small, local, non-profit agencies serving our community directly, like ours, depend so strongly on community support – and that comes to us through the United Fund,&uot; Smyth said.

Often, the Safe Harbor director said, there is a &uot;lot of middle ground that grant monies and state monies simply will not cover. So it is crucial for us to have this United Fund money.&uot;

Smyth said she wishes more counties, like her home county of Crenshaw, had a United Fund in place.

&uot;I so admire the people who had the vision years ago to do this for the county – to streamline the support for so many non-profit agencies through one fundraising project,&uot; Smyth said.

Volunteers needed

In addition to contributing to the United Fund, there are several other ways the community can help Safe Harbor.

The agency is always looking for willing volunteers, Smyth said.

&uot;We can use people who are willing to come in and read to or play with children while we do interviews with their parents, for example.&uot;

The agency also welcomes donations of new and like-new toys and games, children’s books and videos.

&uot;This is a place where you can really make a positive difference in a child’s life,&uot; Smyth said.

&uot;Sometimes, when they first come in the door, they are so scared, anxious and confused. Then later I see them – and they don’t want to leave. That makes everything we do here worthwhile.&uot;

For more information on Safe Harbor, contact Kathy Smyth at 382-8584. To learn more about supporting the United Fund, contact Susan Murphy at 382-3865.