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Stories Added - August 2009
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Childrenz Haven raising matching funds for grant
Polk County Enterprise - August 2009
LIVINGSTON — Childrenz Haven, a nonprofit corporation that advocates for child victims of physical or sexual abuse, is nearing a deadline to lock-in grant funds for the upcoming year. Contributions received by the end of August will be matched by grant funds, more than doubling the impact of those local donations.
The group’s goal is to ease the strain on child victims and nonoffending parents as their offender is prosecuted and restore the child’s life to normal, or as nearly normal as possible. If directors meet a target of $26,000, the local organization could get more than $50,000 in grant funds Childrenz Haven’s first priority for these funds are to obtain equipment for forensic interviews of victims. Specially trained interviewers videotape the child’s description of the event which may be observed from an area out of the child’s sight and hearing. Those observation areas use one-way mirrors or video technology and make sure all investigators’ questions are answered.
The child is not questioned again until a trial date nears and the victim may be asked what they remember. Later, those videotapes can be used to assist in the investigation of incidents the child describes. Interview videos are made available to both prosecutors and defense attorneys. The electronic evidence can demonstrate that the victim is describing a personal experience and has not been prompted to create a false report.. It’s a win-win situation for investigators and someone wrongly accused. As part of a typical interview of a victim of suspected sexual assault, the child is asked to describe the difference between the truth and a lie Based on the child’s answer, investigators, prosecutors and a defense team can assess the child’s ability to distinguish between real and imaginary events.
Once the interviewer establishes rapport with the child they typically ask the child what terms they use for parts of their body that are covered by their swimsuit. Sometimes interviewers use pictures (but not dolls) for specific descriptions of what contact occurred in the incident under investigation. Whatever terms the child uses in his or her answers are the only ones used by the interviewer. Medical, anatomical or euphemisms commonly used by adults are omitted so as not to interfere with assessment of whether the child’s knowledge of sexual behavior is age appropriate.
Acting out sexual behavior or using graphic, adult terms for body parts or actions is one of the first indicators commonly observed that a child has been victimized. Childrenz Haven is bringing together professionals from law enforcement, prosecutors, child protection investigators, mental health and health care providers to offer a multidisciplinary team with a broad range of services for victims. They are completing steps to partner with the Children’s Advocacy Center of Texas Inc. (CACTX) a statewide group with the same mission to restore the lives of abused children. All of the services provided to victims by Childrenz Haven will be free. CACTX serves children who become involved in the criminal justice system because of suspected sexual abuse or serious physical abuse or who have witnessed a violent crime. CACTX provides assistance to developing local organizations including training, case tracking, a resource library, mentoring and assessments to assist local groups in expanding prevention efforts, services offered and number of children served.
Once Childrenz Haven is a fully functioning CAC, Sherry Sprayberry, victim advocate for the Polk County District Attorney’s Office, believes it will reduce the cost of investigating and prosecuting child abuse cases. Memorial Medical Center- Livingston and several nurses on staff there are in the final stages of opening an exam suit and certified staff to conduct sexual assault exams in Livingston. A nurses certified to perform a Sexual Assault Nurse Exam (SANE) gathers medical evidence to determine if a sexual assault occurred and provides expert testimony when a case goes to trial. Sexual assault victims are not billed for SANE exams performed by MMC. Currently, victims have to travel to Lufkin, Conroe or Houston for such an exam. To preserve evidence when a sexual assault is reported immediately after the event, victims are asked not to change clothes, shower or use the restroom – adding to the discomfort of the victim.
A victim advocate accompanies the child and family members to the exam This requires a minimum of a 100 mile round trip and hours of time logged at taxpayers’ expense. Once that evidence is collected, the chain of custody must be protected or it will not be admitted as evidence at trial. That means the nurse examiner or forensic interviewer must place the evidence directly into the hands of a law enforcement officer who transfers it to a secure evidence storage area. That’s time and travel expenses for another 100-mile round trip by an officer from the law enforcement agency handling the case. When Childrenz Haven has this streamlined process in place, Sprayberry believes more victim families will report sexual assault. “Nearly everybody knows someone who’s gone through this ordeal,” Sprayberry said. “Some people will not report a sexual assault because of the trauma to the child. Sometimes parents just don’t show up for a SANE exam after its been set up because of the difficulties they see ahead.”
Sprayberry adds that the reluctance to pursue criminal charges is understandable. The child is crying, the family is distraught. Naturally they just go home and comfort the child, not drive an hour to a hospital and wait to be see by the nurse examiner. Plans for Childrenz Haven include providing a site for forensic interviews. The interview suite wll be located away from law enforcement. “A police station is not child friendly. Having men walking in and out with guns on their hip is scarier to children that most adults think,” Sprayberry said. “We want a safe, secure, children friendly environment.” Investigators will have a separate entrance if they’re attending an interview. CACTX guidelines call for an site that won’t be automatically associated with any investigative role. Should someone acquainted with the child see them going into the facility should not be led to make an assumption that the child is a victim or involved in ongoing investigation based on the building’s appearance or location, according to CACTX guidelines.
The site Childrenz Haven is planning will also be conducive to play therapy and other mental health services that are focused on restoring a normal childhood for the victim once the criminal justice proceedings are over. The team-building aspect of Childrenz Haven is also working to make the time frame from outcry to trial and possible sentencing as short as possible. With members of a sexual assault response team working together, cases will progress faster. Team members will meet in one place, working together. CACTX training also allows teams to secure webbased systems to track cases so that they move toward final disposition of the case as efficiently as possible. It currently takes a year or more for a sexual assault case to come to trial.
The Polk County District Attorney’s office is seeing more of these cases concluded with a plea agreement, eliminating a trial in district court and protecting the child from having to testify before a room full of strangers and, more alarmingly, his abuser. CACTX statistics show that 195 children in Texas become victims of abuse every day. More than 70,000 cases of child abuse a year are confirmed in Texas. One in four girls is sexually abused before her 18th birthday. One in boys is sexually abused by his 18th birthday. Last year, 40,000 children in Texas received services from CACTX. Seventy-five percent of those children were involved in sexual abuse cases. Ninety-eight percent of the children served new their perpetrator. Over half of the children served by CACs are under age 13; 30 percent are not old enough to attend kindergarten.