Children’s Safety Center celebrates 20 years of advocacy
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
“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.”
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.