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