Chil­dren’s Safety Cen­ter cel­e­brates 20 years of ad­vo­cacy

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - LARA JO HIGHTOWER

The walls of the Chil­dren’s Safety Cen­ter of Wash­ing­ton County carry a re­minder of ev­ery child who has passed through the front doors. More than 8,000 hand­prints — in sizes rang­ing from a baby’s foot to a 17-year-old’s hand that could palm a basketball — line the hall­ways and spill into of­fices of the Cen­ter. Th­ese bright and cheer­ful sig­na­tures are a mov­ing trib­ute to the thou­sands of chil­dren in Wash­ing­ton County for whom the Cen­ter has ad­vo­cated dur­ing its 20 years of op­er­a­tion.

“We han­dle pri­or­ity one child abuse cases for the county,” says de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor Emily Rappé Fisher. Pri­or­ity one child abuse in­cludes sex­ual abuse, se­vere phys­i­cal abuse and wit­ness­ing vi­o­lence. Fisher says over 90 per­cent of the cases the Cen­ter han­dles in­volve sex­ual abuse. “We con­duct the foren­sic in­ter­views, be­cause law en­force­ment isn’t al­ways specif­i­cally trained in what is called ‘ChildFirst’ train­ing. We have one full-time in­ter­viewer, and all of our ad­vo­cates are cross-trained to be interviewers, as well, be­cause we are on call 24/7.”

The ChildFirst in­ter­view pro­to­col in­cludes build­ing a rap­port with the child, ask­ing non-lead­ing ques­tions, us­ing terms and lan­guage eas­ily un­der­stood by a child and mov­ing more quickly through the in­ter­view to ac­com­mo­date a child’s lim­ited at­ten­tion span.

“This is a safe place for a child to come,” Fisher adds. “Be­fore ad­vo­cacy cen­ters, chil­dren were ei­ther be­ing in­ter­viewed in the home, where the abuse might have hap­pened, or taken to the po­lice sta­tion, which could be an ex­tremely scary en­vi­ron­ment. Our rooms are very calm­ing, very sooth­ing.”

The Cen­ter also houses a med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion room, with walls brightly painted in a mer­maid theme, where a Sex­ual As­sault Nurse Ex­am­iner (SANE) per­forms ex­ams when nec­es­sary.

“If it’s been within 72 hours of the as­sault, or if the

fam­ily or law en­force­ment re­quests it, we can do [an exam] here in­stead of the child be­ing taken to all of th­ese dif­fer­ent places ,” says Fisher. She says that the Cen­ter saw 620 kids last year and per­formed around 137 med­i­cal ex­ams.

Treat­ment is ex­tended to ev­ery child who is in­ter­viewed at the Cen­ter, says Fisher.

“We’re a non­profit, so all of our ser­vices are com­pletely free,” she says. “They can come to ther­apy here for as long as they want to. We don’t ever close a case. We don’t have to put a cap on ses­sions. They can come here for two years or [more]. If a child is with us when they’re younger, they can come back here to ther­apy [if they de­velop is­sues later]. If the child is in ther­apy and mom or dad needs to come over and talk to us, they can do that. We’re try­ing to lift that fam­ily up.”

The Cen­ter’s ad­vo­cates of­fer sup­port to the chil­dren

and their fam­i­lies far be­yond the dif­fi­cult in­ter­view and med­i­cal exam process.

“We’ll ask the fam­ily if they would like us to come with them to court,” says Fisher. “If the child is be­ing called up to tes­tify, but [the fam­ily doesn’t] want the child in there the en­tire time, we’ll sit in the other room with the child and play games. We’re with the fam­ily through the en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence. We want to fol­low them for as long as they al­low us to.

“We’ve been open 20 years now, and we have a lot of adults who will pe­ri­od­i­cally email or call us to let us know, ‘We saw you on the news, and I want to ex­press to you how much you helped me and here’s how well I’m do­ing now.’”

Fisher points out that the Cen­ter of­fers an en­tire sec­tion on its web­site that fo­cuses on abuse pre­ven­tion that in­cludes free guides for chil­dren and adults and a list of rec­om­mended re­sources to help ed­u­cate par­ents and teach­ers. The Cen­ter has also re­cently started a train­ing pro­gram called Stew­ards of

Chil­dren.

“It’s a quick, two-hour train­ing that we can do here, at your of­fice, at your house for your friends or dur­ing com­mu­nity events where we do it, like, at the Boys and Girls Club,” says Fisher. “It’s open to any­one, re­ally. It’s great for any­one that is not used to this world to kind of learn how to pro­tect your kids. We give you a free work­book with tips — your kids can go to a slum­ber party, but maybe they take their own sleep­ing bags and no one else is al­lowed in each one. Or if they don’t feel com­fort­able hug­ging some­one, that’s OK — they don’t have to. They can high five them. It’s all about teach­ing your chil­dren how to be in charge of their own body.”

“I think peo­ple al­ways feel like it can al­ways hap­pen to some­body else, but not to them,” says Kara Dearien, co­or­di­na­tor of the Cen­ter’s big­gest an­nual fundraiser, Dream Big. “It could be hap­pen­ing to you. And hav­ing that pre­ven­tion as a par­ent, know­ing what to look for, I think, could re­ally help a lot. Peo­ple think it’s ta­boo to talk

about abuse, but it’s not go­ing away, so you have to talk about it — how to pre­vent it, what to do if it does hap­pen.”

Dream Big, now in its 10th year, is nec­es­sary for the Cen­ter’s pro­grams and ini­tia­tives to con­tinue serv­ing the chil­dren of Wash­ing­ton County.

“We re­ceive a very small amount of fund­ing from the state and fed­eral gov­ern­ment, but we never know how long it’s go­ing to be here,” says Fisher.

Dearien says this year’s Dream Big will fea­ture a

vin­tage car­ni­val theme, com­plete with car­ni­val-style games and decor. A wide va­ri­ety of items will be avail­able through silent and live auc­tions, but Dearien says there is lit­tle doubt as to what her fa­vorite item auc­tion is.

“We’re auc­tion­ing off a res­cue dog from Big Paws of the Ozarks,” says Dearien. “She is spayed and up-to-date on her shots, and she will come with train­ing ses­sions as well.” Dearien and Fisher say that adopt­ing the res­cue dog is a good metaphor for the

com­pas­sion­ate work the Cen­ter does.

Tick­ets for the event are $75 each, a price point that is lower than many other fundrais­ing events. It is a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt, says Fisher, to keep the event ac­ces­si­ble so that aware­ness of the Cen­ter and its mis­sion will be open to ev­ery­one. Aware­ness is key in the area of abuse, she says.

“Abuse doesn’t dis­crim­i­nate,” says Fisher. “Young and old, peo­ple of all so­cio-eco­nomic lev­els, all dif­fer­ent races, boys, girls — it af­fects ev­ery­body.”

Cour­tesy Photo

More than 8,000 hand­prints line the hall­ways and of­fices of the Chil­dren’s Safety Cen­ter, a visual re­minder of the Wash­ing­ton County chil­dren who have re­ceived as­sis­tance from the Cen­ter in its 20 years of op­er­a­tion.

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