A Safe Haven: Selma gets Child Advocacy Center

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Selma Times-Journal

Victims of child abuse will soon have a safe haven to tell their painful stories.

Sixteen years after its conception, a Child Advocacy Center (CAC) is set to open off Bell Road in early June, said Jessica Hope, executive director of the Central Alabama Regional Child Advocacy Center.

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With assistance from the district attorney’s office, the center was recently awarded a $48,500 grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA).

“Child abuse is a huge problem in the Black Belt,” said District Attorney Michael Jackson. “We wanted some kind of central location for children to tell what happened to them and also feel like action will be taken.”

Representing Alabama’s fourth circuit, Jackson oversees Bibb, Hale, Dallas, Perry and Wilcox counties. Child abuse and neglect statistics from the Alabama Kids Count 2005 Data Book are unsettling. The state’s 67 counties are ranked by category from best (first) to worst (67th). Dallas County ranks 14th in child abuse incidents. Bibb County ranks 45th, Hale County ranks sixth, Perry County ranks 48th and Wilcox County ranks 31st.

Jackson and Hope both agree the numbers would be greater if all child abuse cases were reported to the Department of Human Resources.

“It’s the silence. It’s the secrecy. People don’t want to here about (sexual abuse),” Hope said.

Said Jackson, “Child abuse is very underreported. Some kids don’t want to come forward. A lot of times (the perpetrator) is a family member and (children) don’t want to tell. They feel ashamed.”

Jackson later added victims are even more tight-lipped when the abuser is of the same sex.

Since June 2005, Hope and United Methodist Children’s Home South Central Regional Director Dr. Judy Manning have interviewed area victims. After intensive training courses, both are careful not to jump to conclusions since child abuse is a sensitive and destructive subject for all parties involved.

“Another part of our purpose is to ensure that the child coming forward is coming forward with the truth and the child is not being coached. The last thing we want to do is accuse a person who’s innocent,” Hope said.

“We try to make sure we have all the details right before we make any arrests. We don’t want to get it wrong.”

Hope and Manning currently perform forensic interviews with victims – a technical tried and true method designed at the National Child Advocacy Center in Huntsville. Both interviewers where earbugs during the videotaped session as a multidisciplinary committee comprised of law enforcement officials, DHR officials, district attorney’s office representatives and mental health specialists observe – unseen and unheard by the victim.

The committee members often feed questions to the interviewers to gather evidence. Hope said this interview method is less traumatic than more traditional practices.

“A child can be interviewed upwards 30 times during the course of an investigation. Our goal is to prevent the child from being re-victimized,” Hope said.

All committee members have access to the video footage for further review.

In addition to the multidisciplinary committee, Hope also works with officials in the medical field. Hope said SABRA Sanctuary has allowed the CAC to use its examination rooms. Dr. Lotfi Bashir of Selma Pediatrics has agreed to perform the examinations with an advanced instrument referred to as a colposcope – a tiny camera that enables very close scrutiny of genitalia if a sexual act occurred.

If local doctors or Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) need a second opinion, video footage from the colposcope will is sent to UAB Hospital.

Hope said the efforts made by the varying community entities are a start to curbing child abuse incidents.

“Ultimately it will result in better prosecution rates and fewer prosecutions of innocents,” Hope said.

“And a better chance to send these perpetrators off to prison for a long time,” Jackson added.

Hope said the CAC is currently organizing its Court Appointed Special Advocacy (CASA) program, where volunteers are assigned to victims during their tour through the court system. The CAC is currently seeking volunteers to make the center “a kid-friendly place.”

In the mean time, Hope will continue to fight for the rights of children.

“I’m compelled to do something. That doesn’t mean that I don’t cry my eyes out, that I don’t get angry and that I don’t beat my head against the wall and feel powerless, but at least I’m doing something,” she said.

For more information, call 874-2540.