Center helps child sex crime victims

Published 11:59 pm Friday, November 13, 2009

When sexual predators prey on our county’s children, there is one place to which law enforcement and the legal system turns in their quest to uncover the truth – Dothan’s Child Advocacy Center.

And among the CAC’s most recent clients are the alleged victims of former pastor Ralph Lee Aaron who allegedly sexually victimized young boys while on camping trips.

The CAC is a non-profit organization that provides a multitude of programs and services for child victims and their families that include forensic interviews, counseling, court support and more. It is dedicated primarily to serving Houston and Henry counties but also lends support to Dale, Geneva and Covington counties.

And they do it for local victims on little to no funding, said CAC director Sherryl Walker.

In 2007-2008, a total of 397 clients were served at the center; of those, 42 victims and their non-offending caregivers from Covington County received support services from the CAC. And of those, 14 children underwent “forensic interviews,” Walker said.

“The way (the organization) works is when a child has an allegation of abuse, the police or social worker call and set up an interview time at our facility,” she said. “We have four master-level trained forensic interviewers who are trained in how to talk with children without using leading questions. They understand the importance of developing rapport, of being in tune with the children before asking them about alleged incidents.

“The child comes in with a non-offending family member and we provide whatever services we have available that they need,” she said.

The information gathered during the videotaped interview is then forwarded to each agency involved, which is generally the Department of Human Resources, the respective law enforcement agency and its district attorney’s office, to be used as evidence in the case.

“It’s really heartbreaking to hear these children describe what has happened to them,” Walker said. “They tell graphic details that authorities need to put these offenders behind bars, and in most cases it’s not a stranger. It’s someone they know, love and trust.

“It’s not your stranger danger person on the street,” she said. “(The offenders) know how to pick (their victims), how to groom them and how to get away with it, and those people take something very precious away from children.”

Walker said to provide services, it costs the CAC an estimated $1,000 annually per child. Funding for the center is primarily raised and dedicated to provide services to victims from Houston and Henry counties. To provide those services for Covington County’s victims, funding is “hit or miss” and sometimes not to be found.

“First and foremost, we don’t want to turn any child or its family down,” Walker said. “They need the services we provide. Those kids need the best care, period, and parents need the best support. It’s not easy to work without funding, but sometimes we have to.

“Most of our funding is from grants,” she said. “We try to get DHR from each county to apply for grant funds and see if there are any others in that area who will help pay for services. We are a non-profit; we have to get out and raise money.”

Walker said the Covington County DHR has applied for and secured a Children’s Justice Mini Task Force grant for the last “several years.” With that grant money, the center is able to see about 10 children a year, Walker said.

“We don’t charge any child or family for service,” she said. “When the money is gone, it’s gone.”

Another source of revenue for the center is the annual “Blue Ribbon Campaign.” Held in conjunction with others nationwide, the movement is also an opportunity to remind people of the responsibility to prevent child abuse and neglect. Community members are encouraged to wear and display blue ribbons during April, which has been designated as National Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month.

Last year Covington County raised an estimated $3,000 from Blue Ribbon Week T-shirt sales, and next Fri., November 20, locals will have the opportunity to get in on the planning at an organizational meeting at 3 Notch Chiropractic at 5 p.m.

“We really don’t have the resources to do all the services we’d like to,” Walker said. “That’s why fundraisers, like the T-shirt sale, are so important. Like I said the people who victimize these children take something very precious away from them and they come here for help. Sometimes we all need to ask for help. For us, it’s not easy to give that help without funding.”