Just a few years ago, when local law enforcement or children’s services sought needed information about a potential child abuse case, they had to seek help in McMinn County.
Now, Cleveland has its own Child Advocacy Center, made possible through a United Way of Bradley County grant coming from the Bradley Memorial Health Endowment Fund.
Similar to the center in Athens, the local center (also called the Hope Center) began operation in Cleveland in 2009.
“We provide services for Bradley County and Polk County,” said Hope Center Director Teresa Grant. “We provide forensic interviews which are legally defensible, non-leading, child-friendly interviews. The whole purpose of the Child Advocacy Center is to provide a child-friendly facility that all the multi-disciplinary team can come to get what happened to the child in one interview, if possible.”
That multidisciplinary team consists of local law enforcement, the Department of Children’s Services, the District Attorney’s office and the Hope Center staff.
The HOPE Center/Children’s Advocacy Center originated about 11 years ago in Athens. There were hopes early on that it might expand to Bradley County, but that did not occur due to funding until two years ago.
“We knew how badly we were needed here because of the numbers,” said Grant, who admitted that many of the cases the center worked were from Bradley County. She said that now, about 75 percent of the cases seen in the 10th Judicial District (Bradley, Polk, McMinn and Monroe counties) are handled by the Cleveland location.
For 2011 only (January through March), 59 forensic interviews have been conducted at the Bradley County site, and nearly 20 of those led to forensic medical exams. Counseling has been provided 223 times and family advocacy sessions for the first quarter of the year total 85.
“When we started here, we were bringing the forensic unit in two days a week, but we have changed it to three days a week because the demand is so high in Bradley County,” Grant explained. “We are so much busier here than we are in our Athens office so we now have full time staff here three days a week, and are coming in after hours if we need to.”
Grant explained that the forensic medical exams are performed only if deemed necessary after the interview with the alleged victim. These interviews are performed by a Masters level social worker who has special training for this purpose, with others involved in the case (law enforcement, Department of Children’s Services, the District Attorney’s office and the Child Advocacy Center) are able to monitor the interview in a separate room.
The forensic medical exams are as non-invasive as possible. They are conducted by a sexual assault nurse examiner.
“All children do not need the medical exam and we don’t want to do them if they do not need them,” Grant said. “But, when a child’s disclosure indicates there is a need for a forensic medical exam, then we do that.”
This type of exam allows for collection of DNA evidence that is then turned over to law enforcement for use in court.
All references come from law enforcement or the Department of Children’s Services. “There has to be an active sex abuse case on a child before they receive services through CAC,” Grant said.
These services are available to children ages 2 to 18, though sadly, Grant noted that their youngest victim receiving services at the Hope Center was only 18-months-old.
“The HOPE Center is a classic example of a need we wish we didn’t have,” said Matt Ryerson, Vice President of Community Investment Strategies for United Way of Bradley County. “Nonetheless, the need exists and we are glad to have the high standard of care and level of professionalism that is offered at the HOPE Center in response to such a sensitive and demanding issue.”
The Hope Center/Children’s Advocacy Center not only helps those involved in the case collect necessary evidence, but also provides assistance to the family of the victim.
“We have a family advocate who will do an assessment with the parents while the child is having his or her interview to find out what the family’s needs are,” Grant added. The center also provides counseling services after all of the interviews have been conducted.
Grant said child sexual abuse continues to be a problem all across the nation. She pointed out that April is National Child Abuse Prevention, a time to stress awareness of this growing situation.
The center will be decorating a tree at the Bradley County Courthouse with blue ribbons to signify that this is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. A tree at the center is also filled with the blue ribbons.
Others in the community are helping the local center. The Beta Club at Lake Forest Middle School is presently doing a teddy bear drive for the Hope Center. Grant explained that each child that comes in for a forensic interview gets to pick something to take home with him or her, but only after the interview has taken place.
“It’s a comfort thing for a child who has gone through a traumatic experience,” she said.
Help like this is very appreciated by Grant and the staff at the Hope Center/Children’s Advocacy Center. She is especially thankful for the United Way grant.
“Without the United Way grant, we would not be here,” she said. “It just wouldn’t be possible.”
“We are proud to be partnering with such a strong team that is willing to serve children in their most traumatic times,” Ryerson added. “This organization and these individuals serving as a part of this team are truly heroes and the United Way of Bradley County is honored to support them in their work.”