Posted Jan 16, 2017 at 7:17 AM Updated at 10:02 AM
By Nancy Molnar
Times-Reporter staff writer
Imagine describing the details of your first sexual encounter to a roomful of strangers.
Now imagine you are a child.
In cases of suspected abuse, a child may be asked to repeat the story to a teacher, guidance counselor, principal, parent or guardian, police officer, social worker, nurse and doctor. And all this happens before going into the judicial system to testify against the abuser.
Such was the case before the Tuscarawas County Child Advocacy Center, a United Way agency, opened in 2011.
“Children were telling their stories of the most intimate things that had happened to them over and over and over again,” said Vanessa Stergios, director of the agency. “There’s just a lot of complications that came out of that, not only the trauma to the child, but sometimes inconsistencies would surface that would make prosecution more difficult.”
The Child Advocacy Center seeks to put abused children at the center of the agencies that serve them. One room has upholstered furniture, cameras and microphones for interviewing victims. The recordings may be used in multiple proceedings.
“The families are comfortable with coming to the CAC due to it not being Children Services, Police Department, or their homes,” said Tommy Cannon, a social worker and forensic interviewer with Tuscarawas County Job and Family Services.
Cannon has used the CAC to speak with children and their families.
“It is a very neutral fact-finding interview,” Stergios said. “We are not putting any words in the child’s mouth. One of the biggest advantages to the Child Advocacy Center is that the child is having, really, a conversation with one person in the room.”
That single conversation can cover all the information each partner entity seeks. Law enforcement wants to know where it happened, to determine which department has jurisdiction. Social workers want to know whether there is a continuing danger. Multiple offices may be curious about the availability of evidence.
State, local, and out-of-county law enforcement agencies have used the CAC.
“There have been a number of cases where we have been able to gather important information through the interview process and then law enforcement has been able to request search warrants to obtain key pieces of evidence for the investigation,” Cannon said.
The advocacy center pulls in agencies and offices related to the investigation, prosecution and treatment of child abuse, including the county prosecutor, Akron Children’s Hospital, and Tuscarawas County Job and Family Services.
The agency connects children and families to resources designed to help overcome their physical and emotional trauma. It also has served victims in related cases, such as witnesses to violence, human trafficking and some physical abuse cases. It has worked with adults who are developmentally delayed or otherwise vulnerable.
Cannon said the CAC’s role in service coordination has increased the ability to “wrap more services around the victims.” He pointed to the Latino Cultural Connection as having particular value. It helps the agency deal with cultural issues affecting Latinos.
“The Tuscarawas County Child Advocacy Center has been a great addition to our county in dealing with the sensitive child sexual abuse and other types of severe abuse cases here in our county over the past five years,” Cannon said.
The Child Advocacy Center has served more than 400 children since opening in June 2011. About 80 percent were sexually abused.
“Four hundred kids in five years is a lot of kids to be sexually abused in a small community like this, and we know we haven’t seen them all,” Stergios said. “You want to think that those things don’t affect all of us, but they do.”
A sexually abused child may be disruptive in school, diverting a teacher’s attention from instruction, Stergios said. Research shows a correlation between child abuse and mental illness, addictions and criminal activity. Victims may eventually become abusers themselves.
The advocacy center offers medical exams to help the healing process.
“We know that if we can tell a child that physically they are OK, the body has healed, this is an unfortunate thing that has happened to them, but it is not going to be something that they carry with them for the rest of their lives from a physical standpoint, that it helps them heal,” Stergios said. “This is not going to change their ability to have a healthy relationship down the road.
“We can’t change what happened to you, but we can change what happens next.”
CAC also does prevention-oriented educational programs in schools.
“Child abuse really is preventable,” Stergios said. “And so if we’re supporting families and providing information, it helps us reduce the risks. We’d love to get to a place where it doesn’t happen.”
National statistics show that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they are 18. Of those, 90 percent are sexually abused by someone they know.
The Child Advocacy Center has received $10,000 a year from United Way of Tuscarawas County since 2015, in addition to donor-designated funds directed to the agency through United Way.
“It really takes every one of those dollars to make it work,” Stergios said. “United Way funding is really critical. The most important thing for an organization like ours is to be sustainable.”
Other entities providing financial support are the county’s Family and Children First Council, Noah’s Hope, the Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services Board of Tuscarawas and Carroll Counties, Dover Exchange Club, the Ohio Attorney General’s office, individual donors, and the Austin Bailey Health and Wellness and Timken foundations.
Non-cash support comes from the Child Support Enforcement Agency, Latino Cultural Connection, and Tuscarawas County commissioners, who provide office space at 152 Second St. NE for $1 a year.
The agency is looking for volunteers to help with fundraisers, other events, a newsletter and its website. For more information, call the Child Advocacy Center at 330-364-2777, e-mail , or visit website www.tusccac.org.
Original article can be found at here.