Hamil­ton House of­fers child abuse vic­tims a safe haven in Fort Smith

Texarkana Gazette - - STATE - By John Lovett

Southwest Times Record

FORT SMITH, Ark.—Jackie Hamil­ton is known as both a “jewel” and a “hero” to those who know her best.

For decades, the founder and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Hamil­ton House Child Safety Cen­ter in Fort Smith has worked to cre­ate a bet­ter world for chil­dren who have suf­fered abuse.

David Saxon, pres­i­dent of the Hamil­ton House board of direc­tors and a re­tired Se­bas­tian County dis­trict judge, said Hamil­ton treats ev­ery child who comes through the door at Mercy Tower in Fort Smith as a mem­ber of her fam­ily. In some cases, the chil­dren do be­come part of her fam­ily, either tem­po­rar­ily or per­ma­nently.

“Jackie is a won­der­ful, kind and giv­ing woman,” Saxon wrote to the Southwest Times Record . “In my opin­ion, she is a true jewel and a credit to the com­mu­nity, and a per­son that if we all em­u­lated, would make this com­mu­nity a bet­ter place to live.”

Be­fore Hamil­ton House, in the Fort Smith area, vic­tims of child abuse did not have a local cen­ter for in­ter­views and ex­ams.

Se­bas­tian County Prose­cut­ing At­tor­ney Dan Shue ex­plains.

“Years be­fore the Hamil­ton House Child & Fam­ily Safety Cen­ter came into ex­is­tence; I was pre­par­ing a sex­ual assault case in­volv­ing a mi­nor child. I had to make the drive to Spring­dale, which was where the sex­ual assault nurse ex­am­iner worked, to in­ter­view the wit­ness for an up­com­ing jury trial in Fort Smith,” Shue wrote. “It re­ally hit me on that trip how trau­ma­tiz­ing for a child to be taken out of their home, pos­si­bly at night, and driven by strangers all that way, and then back to Se­bas­tian County, in the pur­suit of jus­tice for the vic­tim. I al­ways sup­ported Jackie in her vi­sion for a safety cen­ter here, but that ex­pe­ri­ence turned me from a mere sup­porter to an ac­tive ad­vo­cate.

“Less than three years later, her dream be­came a re­al­ity and the chil­dren and non-of­fend­ing par­ents and guardians in our com­mu­nity had a place of safety and heal­ing … ap­pro­pri­ately named Hamil­ton House.”

The cen­ter was founded in 2010, but Hamil­ton’s ad­vo­cacy for both chil­dren goes much farther back.

Saxon said he has known Hamil­ton since 1991, when he was the chief deputy prose­cut­ing at­tor­ney tasked with help­ing cre­ate a multi-dis­ci­plinary team for Craw­ford and Se­bas­tian counties. The team was cre­ated to in­ves­ti­gate and pro­vide treat­ment for chil­dren of the 12th Ju­di­cial Dis­trict who were vic­tims of child abuse.

“It was read­ily ap­par­ent from our first meet­ing that Jackie’s pri­or­i­ties were the safety and pro­tec­tion of all chil­dren,” Saxon wrote. “Her love and com­pas­sion knows no bounds as demon­strated by the cre­ation of the child safety cen­ter that bears her name — Hamil­ton House. This fa­cil­ity was de­signed, planned and built with chil­dren in mind and through the dis­ci­plinary sup­port and kind­ness of Mercy Hos­pi­tal. The fa­cil­ity pro­vides a com­fort­able and safe haven for chil­dren who are the vic­tims of sex­ual abuse to re­port what hap­pened to them and a place where that can be ex­am­ined by trained, med­i­cal per­son­nel if nec­es­sary.”

Saxon noted when the cen­ter first opened, it had very lit­tle op­er­at­ing money and Hamil­ton did not cash her pay­roll checks for many months un­til the cen­ter was on firm fi­nan­cial foot­ing and “only af­ter the Board and fi­nan­cial sec­re­tary told her she had to.”

Me­lea McCormick, Hamil­ton House’s foren­sic nurse co­or­di­na­tor, said Hamil­ton is al­ways do­ing things for oth­ers.

“She’s al­ways ‘tak­ing in strays,’ but her strays are not stray an­i­mals; they are peo­ple in need,” McCormick wrote. “Re­cently, she drove a mom and her son around town for three days, tak­ing them to the res­cue mis­sion to stay at night and places like the li­brary to spend their days. She ended up pay­ing for them to take a bus out of town, back home to fam­ily. The mom had been in a do­mes­tic abuse sit­u­a­tion in our area.

“She goes above and be­yond to help oth­ers, no mat­ter what their sit­u­a­tion.”

Sam T. Si­card, pres­i­dent of First Na­tional Bank of Fort Smith and a sup­porter of Hamil­ton House pro­grams, said Hamil­ton is an in­spi­ra­tion to him and the com­mu­nity.

“Jackie is a hero. And I don’t use that word lightly,” Si­card wrote. “Can you imag­ine sub­ject­ing your­self ev­ery day to story af­ter story of a child be­ing abused, and hear­ing that story from hun­dreds of in­no­cent child vic­tims each year? What peo­ple should un­der­stand is Jackie is sub­ject­ing her­self al­most ev­ery day to both emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma; she car­ries the emo­tional and phys­i­cal scars of the abused chil­dren she helps with her. Only a hero would do such a thing for such a wor­thy cause. I find in­spi­ra­tion from those who are re­lent­less in pur­su­ing a wor­thy cause and from those who are in­cred­i­bly coura­geous. Ev­ery once in a while I’ve been blessed to meet and know those who are both, like Jackie Hamil­ton.”

Hobe Ru­nion III, Se­bas­tian County chief deputy and sher­iff-elect, said he first met Hamil­ton 13 years ago when he was a newly as­signed de­tec­tive tasked with ju­ve­nile sex crimes. He was re­ferred to Hamil­ton for ad­vice. He said Hamil­ton and her team made it eas­ier to nav­i­gate the dif­fer­ent agen­cies to get jus­tice and clo­sure for the chil­dren who had been abused.

Ru­nion even­tu­ally be­came a mem­ber of the mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary team and mem­ber of the Hamil­ton House Board of Direc­tors. Saxon and Shue are also on the Hamil­ton House Board.

“Jackie brings a pas­sion for her work and for the chil­dren that I rarely see,” Ru­nion wrote. “For her to give up per­sonal time, po­ten­tial in­come and an­other ca­reer to pur­sue this worth­while en­deavor says a lot about her and her level of ded­i­ca­tion to the chil­dren.”

Kris Dea­son re­tired from the Fort Smith Po­lice De­part­ment in May 2017 af­ter 29 years with the Ju­ve­nile Di­vi­sion of the Special Investigation Unit. Like Saxon, Dea­son started work with Hamil­ton in 1991 when there was no local child safety cen­ter. When a case de­vel­oped, they met at the po­lice de­part­ment, local hos­pi­tals or other places. Since then, much has been learned about child abuse cases.

Dea­son said she shud­ders to think of all the abuse vic­tims who did not get jus­tice. The physi­cian knowl­edge and tech­nol­ogy for foren­sic nurses was simply not there yet.

“It was al­ways an idea in the back of our minds, es­pe­cially Jackie’s, to get our own cen­ter,” Dea­son said.

Dea­son counts Hamil­ton as both a friend and a col­league who worked with her through the ear­li­est stages of de­vel­op­ing a pro­to­col for child abuse re­sponse and in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

“You’re not go­ing to find any­one who is more of an ad­vo­cate for chil­dren and fam­i­lies,” Dea­son said.

Hamil­ton said she had al­ready been a vol­un­teer for SCAN (Sus­pects of Child Abuse and Ne­glect) when she was elected by then state Rep. Car­olyn Pol­lan to im­ple­ment and co­or­di­nate the state’s first mul­ti­dis­ci­pline team for child abuse. Hamil­ton was one of the first pro­fes­sion­als in Arkansas to be trained as a mem­ber of a Child Ab­duc­tion Re­sponse Team and is cur­rently a mem­ber of the re­sponse team in west cen­tral Arkansas. She is cred­ited with writ­ing the state’s “first dis­po­si­tion-sen­tence for a sex­ual of­fender” and con­tin­ues to serve as an in­struc­tor for the Law En­force­ment Acad­emy.

As a coun­selor and owner of Learn­ing Con­sul­tants, Hamil­ton also con­tin­ues to pro­vide train­ing for men who have been ac­cused of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

Hamil­ton said be­fore the mul­ti­dis­ci­pline teams were cre­ated, the state’s law en­force­ment and De­part­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices did not com­mu­ni­cate well.

“Now they’re like broth­ers and sis­ters,” Hamil­ton said. “It takes both of them to make it suc­cess­ful.”

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