Teresa Grant, executive director of the 10th Judicial District Children’s Advocacy Center, said there is something that happens more often in Bradley County than most people might think.
Speaking to the Rotary Club of Cleveland on Tuesday, she shared how the center’s two offices have been trying to find the truth behind allegations of crimes that victimize children in increasing numbers each year.
On average, the centers see 500 children each year, she said.
The Children’s Advocacy Center was originally started in Athens, but Grant said the staff soon realized that a large number of the cases they saw were related to Cleveland.
An office was needed in Bradley County, and the Bradley Memorial Hospital Fund and the United Way were able to provide the money needed to start the Cleveland site.
Children seen are in some way impacted by crimes under investigation in the district court system.
Some children at the center have witnessed crimes that are being addressed in the court system, but many times the children are thought to be victims of abuse.
“Forensic interviewing” is used to help investigate cases..
A child sits in a room and talks with a social worker, who is specially trained to ask questions that require children to describe in detail what happened without leading them to give certain answers.
Other staff members watch on closed-circuit television so children only have to tell their story to one person one time instead of having to relive their experiences in multiple interviews.
Once the interview has taken place, staff members evaluate the situation. If a child has told the social worker they have been abused, the child may need to receive a medical exam from an on-site nurse, who can collect evidence of any abuse and send it to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
In some cases, children tell of things like sexual abuse. While most children the center sees are above the age of 6, Grant said she knew of cases where very young children were thought to have been victims of rape.
“We’ve had children as young as 18 months need a medical exam,” Grant said.
The Rotarians were invited to ask questions. A couple of attendees asked Grant if she knew what kind of mentality would cause an adult to hurt an innocent child.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t have a reason why people do the crime.”
While the staffs of the two offices have not been able to find the answer to that disturbing question, Grant said they have been focusing on helping the victims overcome what they have been through.
The center works with children who have been victimized to find resources like counseling. Because a child’s home life is important, she said non-offending adults in the home may also need services as well.
The goal is to help children who have been through traumatic things to find ways to smile and laugh again.
“The best thing I do everyday ... is when I walk down the hall and hear laughter,” Grant said. “I know that they’re going to be OK.”
Despite the successes of solved cases, Grant said some common misconceptions about child abuse have continued to remain even after 13 years.
One is that child abuse does not happen in the Cleveland area. The 10th Judicial District’s two offices see about 500 children each year, and 250 of them — half — are seen at the Cleveland office.
Another misconception is that children are most often hurt by people they do not know.
Unfortunately, she said, the person who hurts a child is often someone the child trusts the most.
“Most kids aren’t hurt by strangers,” Grant said. “Most kids we see … they are by people they know.”
Such abuses can happen in homes of people of all socioeconomic statuses, she added.
While the center has to deal with some weighty concerns involving children, not everything staff members learn is sad news. Sometimes, she said, happier findings can come from the forensic interviews.
“Many times it disproves,” Grant said. “The truth can come out — whatever it is.”
While the number of children the advocacy centers in Athens and Cleveland see annually may seem like a large number, it does mean that cases are being investigated instead of ignored, she added.
People have increasingly reported cases of child abuse, and Grant said having a high number was still much better than cases going unreported.
“I think the numbers are as high as they are because our investigators do a good job,” she said.
Grant said people could report instances of child abuse by contacting the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. Anyone can do so by calling 1-877-237-0004.