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Through my lens by Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell

This past Tuesday, the Covington County Child Advocacy Center, or CAC for short, hosted its annual Blue Ribbon Ceremony.  The ceremony is a time for the community to come together and honor child abuse victims, and to bring awareness to a cause that isn’t always easy, and certainly isn’t fun, to discuss.  But awareness leads to prevention, and so an open discussion about child abuse is so absolutely necessary to improving our communities.

The CAC’s Executive Director, Mindy Barton, opened the ceremony, speaking briefly about the Center’s success in 2020.  Mrs. Barton then introduced Reverend Darryl Calloway, who led the crowd in fervent prayer for our child abuse victims, and the individuals working to make those victims whole again.  We also enjoyed the sweet voice of Maggie Ruth Wiggins, 8 th grader at Pleasant Home School, as she sang a truly encouraging rendition of “As Good as It Gets” for our team members.  “You lead my heart out of the past, you are the promise here in the moment, where I find my rest, you are as good as it gets.”  Chilling to imagine the relief a child must feel when they are finally able to tell the horrors they’ve kept secret for so long, and the support we hope they find in the arms of our team members.

Our Child Advocacy Center was founded in 2015 after myself and other community leaders grew weary of seeing children forced to tell their stories of abuse over and over again due to inefficiencies within the “system.”  Still, to this day, I serve as the CAC Board Chairman and spoke Tuesday of how before we founded the CAC, the “wheels on the bus went round and round.”  For example, children would make an initial disclosure of abuse to their teacher, who then tells the principal, who tells DHR, who tells law enforcement, who brings charges to a prosecutor.  Perhaps the child is sent for a medical exam, and then to counseling.  Prior to the CAC, children were required to relive their trauma time and again to each well-intentioned individual wanting to help by asking another round of questions.

However, the CAC changed all that.  Children are now brought to the CAC for a forensic interview, conducted by a specially trained interviewer.  The interviewer is able to capture the child’s story in a non-leading manner, and other interested parties (DHR caseworkers, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, counselors) are able to watch in-camera, through a television in an adjacent room.  Before concluding, the interviewer pauses to speak with those in the adjoining room and ensure everyone’s questions are answered.  This process drastically limits the trauma caused to the child, and puts them on a much straighter path toward healing.  Following the interview, DHR may proceed with a safety plan for the child; law enforcement may bring charges to be prosecuted by the District Attorney’s Office; counselors have better direction; nurses can determine if an intrusive medical exam is likely to be helpful.

The CAC provides the aforementioned services in-house, but that is certainly not all.  From the initial forensic interview, the medical exam, and counseling services, the goal of the CAC has been to create a “one-stop-shop” for the child.  We provide counseling to these victims.  We provide medical help, too.  More than that, though, we have a new asset to help these children heal: Wendell, a facility dog who assists clients throughout their involvement at the CAC and court process.  Trained in over 40 commands, Wendell interacts with victims to ease anxiety and stress, providing comfort and companionship as children move through a scary and foreign world of interviews, counseling, court appearances, and the like.

Many around us would propose that we live in a community where child abuse and neglect is nearly non-existent, but unfortunately the individuals who work with the CAC know all too well how untrue that argument would be.  In fact, the Department of Human Resources saw 240 children in “indicated” abuse reports in 2020.  That is 240 incidents of child abuse or neglect from right here in Covington County where credible evidence existed to believe the perpetrator was responsible for the child abuse or neglect.  How many more incidents of abuse occurred?  We may never know, because reports were never made.

In 2020, the CAC staff conducted 106 forensic interviews, and 483 counseling sessions.  Wendell assisted in over 150 of those interviews and he also assisted in over 200 counseling sessions, all in an effort the help children find healing.  Wendell also attended grand jury, custody hearings, and adoption hearings, all as a means of comfort and support for children testifying in those intense proceedings.

The CAC is such a vital asset to our community.  I am pleased that we have been able to grow and offer additional services since its inception, but there is still plenty of work to be done.  If anyone deserves the best the community has to offer, it is certainly our children.  I am thankful for our members of the Multi-Disciplinary Team that serve victims through the CAC.  I am especially thankful for, and proud of, the brave victims who find their inner strength to come forward with their stories.  Through their voices, we learn how to help them and how to work toward preventing abuse for the next person.  There is nothing more rewarding than helping our children.

Want to help?  You can volunteer or donate to the CAC and the children we serve.  Please call Mindy at 222-1881 for details.