Published 12:03 am Thursday, April 9, 2015

Shown is the interview room at the CAC.

Shown is the interview room at the CAC.

New child advocacy center opens today

Today, Covington County will embark on a new journey in protecting its children.

More than a year and a half in the making, the Child Advocacy Center will open its doors today as a much-needed resource in the county.

Last year, 275 reports of child abuse were investigated in Covington County.

Of those, 81 were found to have enough evidence of sexual or physical abuse or neglect for prosecution or to place children in foster care, and 130 children were affected by those cases.

“Sometimes we have multiple children per case,” said DHR director Lesa Syler.

For the last few years, the county has partnered with Butler County for child advocacy services and Syler said that Covington County has become a large portion of their budget, but that it was being supplemented by a children’s justice task force and local box-lunch sales.

Syler said the center, which is located on the Andalusia Regional Hospital campus, will provide services to children and the non-offending parent of child sex and physical abuse.

“The main service we will provide is forensic interviews,” she said.

As part of the interview process, children will be asked questions about the alleged incidents.

An added bonus is that the interviewer and the child will be in a special room set up with children’s décor to make the child more comfortable, while other members of the investigative team watch unseen from a conference room.

Syler said this allows the child to not have to rehash the incident over and over again.

In the past, the process of investigating took some 50- man hours and from three to six weeks, but the process will now be condensed into one day.

District Attorney Walt Merrell said the idea stems from a Huntsville district attorney who was interviewing a child abuse victim, who asked him if different agencies involved ever talked to one another because of the repetition of her stories.

“The resources will extremely streamline the process,” he said. “This way, the child only has to go through it once. It gets the child to the point of healing more quickly.”

Another service will be that medical exams related to the incidents will be conducted at the center.

Syler said the exam room is made possible through the partnership with ARH.

Hospital ER Director Amy Herrington and staff have received specialized training called SANE (sexual assault nurse examiner).

“This couldn’t have happened without Amy,” Syler said. “Walt and I told her what we wanted to do and she took it and ran with it. She got access to this training.”

Syler said Covington County’s is the only advocacy center able to conduct these exams in the state, with the exception of the national center in Huntsville.

“We all recognize it’s a crucial part of the process,” she said. “And it can be very traumatizing for the child.”

Merrell applauded the hospital for helping by sending the nurses to the training.

“It’s unique in that most rural hospitals can’t do this,” he said. “In the past, we had to send victims as far away as Dothan for medical treatment. You can see how that will discourage follow-up.”

Local counselors will also utilize the facility.

“We want to help the children begin to heal,” Syler said.

Though counseling varies by case, Syler said the majority of children have a weekly counseling session or twice-monthly session.

“It really depends on what the child’s needs are,” she said.

Syler and Merrell said the goal is to keep it as comfortable as possible for children in a bad situation.

“We are going to work very hard to maintain anonymity,” Merrell said. “We don’t want people passing each other in the hall. That’s the reason for the quaintness.”

Syler said the center is very child-focused.

“At DHR, the DA’s office, the police station, there is so much going on,” she said. “Here, families will be welcomed into a safe environment.”

Merrell said the CAC will provide children and parents with a place where they aren’t immediately on the defensive.

“The hospital ER, DA’s office, police station, all put kids on the defensive and that’s not what we’re about,” he said.

Not only will the CAC help children cope with the abuse, it will also offer resources to the non-offending parent.

“A lot of time they don’t know they need the support,” Syler said. “By bringing the child here, we can educate them to understand what they need. It’s just as important.”

Merrell said that oftentimes the non-offending parent is in a “financial prison.”

“If they leave, they’ll be homeless and destitute,” he said. “I can’t say this enough, it’s imperative that Opportunity House get up and running again. We will help them identify things that will get them where they need to be.”

Syler said that sometimes parents aren’t willing to share what their needs are because they are worried that their children will be taken away.

“We have resources to help tear down the barriers of the stigma related to parents,” she said. “Families are often scared to say what they need. We are trying to make it where there is no fear tied to that person, so they are able to share what their needs are. We really try hard to engage with families.”

Merrell said a lot of parents have overwhelming guilt for allowing the child into the situation.

“They have a lot of hurdles to overcome,” he said. “It’s a huge defensive mechanism and guilt often turns into shame and they withdraw from the process, but we want to help them.”

Another component of the CAC will be education and increased awareness, Syler said.

“A lot of children aren’t taught good touch, bad touch and secret touches,” she said. “Some kids don’t learn this. We want to educate the public on this.”

Merrell said community support is crucial.

“The only way this works is if it’s a community partnership,” he said. “This is a non-profit organization. There are some government funds available, but it’s pennies in the bottom of the bucket.

“The Bible says, ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these, you do for me,’” Merrell said. “I’ve seen this community stand up time and time again. I’m asking them to join us and protect the least of these.”

Syler said the operating budgets for other advocacy centers is around $100,000, but she said that Covington County’s reports are larger than those, so it is expected to be higher than that.

A grand opening and ribbon cutting will be at 10 a.m. today.