A voice for the children

By Chris Berendt Staff Writer

April 9, 2014

Victims of child abuse suffer an unimaginable trauma. It is one that is only compounded when that child has to relive those horrible experiences to multiple strangers and they do not have a place to go where people care, listen and provide the reassurance needed to get them through the darkest of times.

That is what a Child Advocacy Center (CAC) can do. It is a neutral place that offers a safe haven for children, while allowing investigators, schools, Social Services, medical professionals and others to more effectively serve the child.

“It is a child-friendly place, a place that is not scary,” said Shannon Blanchard, volunteer coordinator of a Multi-Disciplinary Team that reviews abuse cases and is seeking the establishment of a CAC locally. “We are at the point now where we want to start our own Child Advocacy Center. It will offer more services to our children in Sampson County. We are lacking in a service that is desperately needed here.”

Blanchard and others spoke during a breakfast meeting at the Sampson County Department of Social Services, raising awareness of the rampant epidemic of child sex abuse, explaining the benefits of a Child Advocacy Center and urging people to get involved in realizing such a center here.

There are 58 open cases of child sexual abuse in Sampson. Currently, there are 34 CACs that provide service to 78 counties across the state. Sampson is not one of them.

“That leaves 22 counties in this state that children have absolutely no access to anybody, nobody to stand up for them and tell them they believe them and it’s going to be OK. That’s an injustice,” Deana Joy, director of Children’s Advocacy Centers of North Carolina, said. “These children are the most vulnerable people in your community, yet they are the most valuable. They are the face of the future of Sampson County.”

Often, the investigation into child abuse can cause even more emotional distress for the young victim, with various medical and mental health professionals, Child Protective Services workers, law enforcement and criminal justice personnel all working to assist the child.

“Everybody is working for the best interest of that child,” Blanchard noted, “but when they don’t know what the other person is doing things might not be going as smoothly as they could.”

The CAC model seeks to pull those resources together as one cohesive team.

What that means is a child does not have to tell their story more than a dozen times to each different authority involved. If that child tells their story to a teacher, they may have to then tell their story to other school officials then DSS workers and again to medical personnel, therapists, law enforcement investigators, prosecutors, a jury and so on.

“There is a possibility that child tells their story 17 times based on what has happened in our county before,” Blanchard said. “If you think about the most traumatic event that has ever happened to you … think about having to tell that story in detail to 17 different people, 17 strangers at that. You can imagine how hard it is for a child to do that, especially about something so private and personal.”

Under the CAC model, that same child, upon telling their teacher about the abuse, school officials then get into contact with both law enforcement and Social Services, who then contact the Child Advocacy Center, which has a trained professional conduct a Child Medical Exam (CME) and forensic interview with the child. That interview is recorded.

“All those parties that may be involved and need to be there can sit in another room and watch one person interview that child. Not only is that better for the child, it also will help in court.”

With that CAC model, the child has told their story two times.

‘Cannot turn

a blind eye’

The idea for the CAC began with Patrick Giddeons of the Guardian ad Litem Program back in 2010. Giddeons, Child Protective Service worker Jane Dudley and Detective Chris Godwin began contemplating what it would take to get a CAC in Sampson.

Godwin, who began investigating crimes against children in 2008, said most of those involve sexual assaults. Through the investigation of hundreds of child sex crimes, Godwin said there have been times where he has to do interviews at the Sheriff’s Office’s interrogation room, his patrol car or the very house where the abuse occurred.

“I have numerous times listened to children tell me about father, stepfather, granddaddy sneaking into their room in the middle of the night doing things to them that none of us would want to happen to a child,” Godwin said. “But it happens and they have to tell me, whereas someone at a CAC in a child-friendly environment would be much more equipped to handle that.”

Godwin told the story of a 10-year-old girl who was awakened by gunshots in the middle of the night. She wanted to hide, but knew her mother’s boyfriend was violent and she wanted to see if her mother was OK. She went into the living room, where she found her mom shot in the chest three times. She told Godwin about how she held her mother’s hand as she took her last breath.

“The whole time she’s telling me this in our interrogation room,” the detective remarked. “Obviously we can’t keep these sorts of crimes from happening, but what we can do by having a CAC locally is minimize the (emotional) damage that is done to the children after the crime and the burden that is placed upon them by the investigation.”

The problem is not going away, with cases increasing in number and intensity, Dudley said.

“A Child Advocacy Center in Sampson County will have lasting positive effects for the child and this community,” she commented. “Just its presence alone would show that the community cares about its youth and is taking a stand against the epidemic of child abuse and neglect.”

To have a CAC, you first have to have that multi-disciplinary team of professionals. In Sampson, that includes members of DSS, the Health Department, Sheriff’s Office, Clinton Police Department, Guardian ad Litem and Eastpointe Mental Health. Clinton Medical Clinic, Sampson Regional Medical Center and both local school systems, Clinton City and Sampson County, are also involved.

The local group began meeting in June 2012 and began reviewing cases in October 2012. In the year and a half since, the team has reviewed 102 cases, nearly all of them child sex abuse cases. There were a few involving severe physical abuse.

The numbers show no discrimination, with 39 percent being white, 33 percent Hispanic and 21 percent African-American with others being bi-racial or undocumented. Of the cases, 48 percent involved elementary school children, ages 5-10 and 78 percent involve female victims.

Many times it is not a stranger who is the abuser, but a relative or family friend, the statistics show.

District Attorney Ernie Lee said there are more than 100 registered sex offenders in Sampson alone. In Sampson, there are currently 21 defendants who stand charged with sex offenses against children, indecent liberties with a minor, statutory rape and felony child abuse.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to these things, and what we need is specially-trained people to deal with children who have been victimized,” Lee said. “These numbers alone demonstrate the importance of having a Child Advocacy Center in Sampson County. Behind every one of those statistics is a real child.”

Lee has seen the positive effects of a CAC in Onslow County.

“I can tell you it does work. It’s made for more effective law enforcement, more effective prosecutions and it’s helped DSS and all of us who are trying to do what is best for the children,” the District Attorney said. “What is truly frightening is all those children who for many years suffer in silence. For those people, maybe one day they can truly have a voice — we can be their voice through a Child Advocacy Center.”

And they need the proper outlet to share that voice. The CAC has trained professionals skilled in interviewing children, which in turn helps successfully prosecute cases and put those responsible behind bars.

“It can make a difference, but it’s going to take a multi-team approach — a Child Advocacy Center — to do this,” he said.

‘A place that is safe’

Joy said a CAC has to meet several national standards, including those concerning on-site forensic interviewing, medical exams, access to mental health and victim advocacy.

A child advocate and forensic interview for years, Joy said she has heard countless stories from children “that will haunt me for the rest of my life.” However, she knew that her job was to make children feel safe to share their story and feel better when they leave that someone cares and will help them.

“The critical part is that they do have a place they can go that is theirs, a place that is safe,” Joy said. “Our only job is to protect them and work with them to see them come out of that darkness and become the children they always deserved to be.”

Being that person to hold their hand through that process is the “most rewarding experience” you can have, Joy attested. Most of the children do not come from loving homes with parents who take stock in what they do, where finger-paintings are put on the fridge and parents dote over their child’s latest creation.

“What the Child Advocacy Center becomes for them is that home,” Joy said. “As that staff works with them, that place becomes their family. I have file cabinets drawers full of pictures and reports cards and things kids have brought me because I was that person for them. And I will never throw them away, because each of those kids should have a place to come back to that somebody thought enough of them to keep it — that somebody believed in all of their potential and dreams and it helped them to get there.”

Blanchard and DSS director Sarah Bradshaw called for community involvement to move toward that vision in Sampson, talking about possible fundraising events. The help and support of the community was paramount, they said.

Joy said she believed Sampson County could get there. It was crucial to the county’s youth, present and future, that they have that safe place.

“You’re meeting them in their darkest hour and you’re helping them to find the kid they deserve to be, the kid they were born to be. You’re walking them towards that and giving them back the gift of their life. There is nothing in this world that can be more valuable than that,” she remarked. “I think you deserve to get there and I think every kid in this county deserves to have that.”

For more information on the Child Advocacy Center effort and to assist in any way, contact Shannon Blanchard at 910-385-7785.

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at