NEWS- 100 per year: Center eases sex abuse trauma
Children who have been sexually abused are "unquestionably traumatized," says Lori Green, a social worker with Albemarle County Social Services. But what few people realize is that the act of bringing their assailants to justice can heap additional trauma on children, who may be forced to tell their story many times in various interrogation rooms, long before they ever take the stand.
Enter the Foothills Child Advocacy Center, a new area nonprofit, which aims to ease that secondary trauma by providing a comfortable place where children can tell their story once in front of representatives from multiple agencies.
"It's kind of a revolution in that you systematically get agencies working together," says board member David Lerman, who worked for the New Orleans Child Advocacy Center several years ago before moving to Charlottesville. At Foothills, social services from the city and county will join forces with police, Region 10, Piedmont Court Appointed Special Advocates, and the Charlottesville Albemarle Commission on Children and Families.
"Trying to make it easier on the child is the whole goal," says Lerman.
While high-profile molestation cases get plenty of media attention, they are relatively rare. Lerman and other Center board members say sexual abuse of children is far too common, though it doesn't often come to the public's attention.
"Not a lot of people know how endemic the problem is," he says.
Charlottesville and Albemarle are hardly exempt.
According to Gretchen Ellis, director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Commission on Children and Families, a nonprofit that distributes $15 million from the city and county to foster and other at-risk children, Foothills has been taking on approximately four new cases each week since it began offering services in April. Though she did not have current data, Ellis says that in 2002 there were 100 reports of sexual assault against juveniles in Albemarle and Charlottesville.
"We expect that number is higher now," says Ellis.
Despite such numbers, prosecution is difficult.
"Juries don't want to believe that caretakers can do this to their children," says Green, adding that accusations often come out during divorces and that defendants and their lawyers often claim the other parent is "coaching" the child to make false claims.
Green says that's possible, but she believes it's unlikely that one parent could get a child to lie about the other parent on the stand.
The child, says Green, "is risking their whole world and that of their parent," she says.
Also, a child's testimony is often called into question, and even physical evidence doesn't always sway a jury, says Green, who recalls one case in which a five-year-old took the stand to tell of her abuse. After the child testified, her doctor testified about finding tears in her vagina consistent with digital penetration. To no avail.
"They still acquitted him," says Green, who hopes the new Center will eventually bolster the conviction rate.
The biggest change says Green, is that the center will use only "forensic interviewers"– social workers or mental health professionals with special training for interviewing for criminal proceedings.
Green– who has received such training– believes the use of video and audio recording during interviews will be particularly helpful, since children, she says, "often say more with their bodies than their words."
The Foothills Center is not the first of its kind. Ellis says there are currently 550 Child Advocacy Centers in the nation, but only three in Virginia. In order to achieve accreditation from the National Children's Alliance, a government agency that oversees the disbursement of the federal grants, Foothills must comply with 10 requirements.
Most– such as creation of an interdisciplinary team and the use of forensic interviewers– are already in place. However, Ellis says the Center must acquire a freestanding house in order to receive accreditation.
Ellis estimates the Center will operate on a $250,000 budget, with $130,000 coming from state and federal grants, and she hopes to raise enough money to be in a new location by July 1.
Clockwise from top left: Gretchen Ellis, Jennifer Kline, Kim Kuttner, Dave Lerman, Rob Trundle, Lori Green, and Jane Tirrell, gathered at Kuttner's house on Saturday night, September 30, to kick off fundraising for a new home for the Foothills Child Advocacy Center.
PHOTO BY COURTENEY STUART