Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

24 centers across state ease trauma of abuse for children
Ron Martz - Staff
Wednesday, April 19, 2000

Kris Rice deals daily with one of the seamier sides of society --- sexual and severe physical abuse of children.

Some days she feels the need to rush home after work and take a shower to wash off the depravity. But even on those days, she said, solace can be found in the faces of the children.

"When kids first come in they look anxious, nervous and scared. When they leave they are usually smiling because they told their secret and a grown-up listened to them," said Rice.

Rice is executive director of Coastal Children's Advocacy Center in Savannah. It is one of 24 CACs statewide that deal with both sexual and severe physical abuse of children in a way that is designed to reduce trauma for the youthful victims.

Instead of parading children who may be the victims of abuse through a series of interviews with police, prosecutors and the state Division of Family and Children Services, the youngster is brought to a CAC, often by a DFACS worker, for a single interview. That interview, usually with a psychologist or clinical director, is videotaped and witnessed through a two-way mirror by representatives from the appropriate law enforcement agencies, the prosecutor's office and DFACS to determine if the abuse actually has taken place.

This year's General Assembly added $250,000 to the existing $525,000 budget of the statewide CACs. And on Monday night, the Child Protective Services Task Force strongly urged that the centers be expanded

Garry Moss, district attorney for Cherokee County, said he realized in the late 1980s that the legal system was not doing a good job dealing with young victims of abuse, and he began pushing for creation of a center in his county modeled after the first one developed in Huntsville, Ala., in 1985.

"At that time the system was very fragmented. Each police agency would do it differently," he said.

In 1992, the Anna Crawford Children's Center opened in Woodstock. Since then, said Moss, a member of the facility's board of directors, the system has become coordinated and has focused more on the needs of victims.

"It makes it a much more cohesive and coordinated effort. It's a much better quality of product when the case is presented in court," Moss said.

With only 24 CACs in the state, many of Georgia's 159 counties still use courthouses, sheriff's offices or hospitals to interview children, which can intimidate and frighten them into clamming up or saying what the interviewer wants to hear.

Vicki Boardman, clinical director at Anna Crawford, said the CACs are "intended to be the hub for law enforcement, the district attorney and DFACS in abuse cases. It's very difficult and can be very traumatizing for children to have to sit through multiple interviews."

Rep. Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta) calls the CACs "an important piece of the puzzle" that is child welfare in Georgia.

Mary Migliaro, interim director of Georgia Network of Children's Advocacy Centers, said the extra money allocated by the Legislature likely will be used to aid in expansion because "the movement has just absolutely exploded in Georgia over the last six months."

Clayton County will open a CAC in Jonesboro in the next few months and Fulton County hopes to open a temporary facility that will provide a broad spectrum of services for children and families by July 1. Those services would include Juvenile Court officers, law enforcement, DFACS, welfare officials and other agencies that deal with children and families.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said a permanent facility is planned for 2002 at a cost of $10 million to $15 million and will house representatives of all agencies that deal with child welfare and child abuse.

Howard cited the Terrell Peterson case as "a classic case of falling through the cracks" because there was little coordination or communication among agencies that should have protected him. "This center will prevent this," Howard said.

Terrell is the 5-year-old Atlanta boy who died in January 1998 after he and his siblings had been the subject of eight reports of abuse and neglect. His grandmother, aunt, and the aunt's boyfriend have been charged in connection with his death.

Migliaro and other CAC officials say the number of cases they see varies by facility. The Cherokee CAC conducted 120 interviews last year, Savannah about 250, and Warner Robins about 150, only a small percentage of which were not actual sexual or physical abuse.

Migliaro said she does not believe there is more sexual abuse of children now than there was 10 years ago. "There are just more people now and we're better at reporting it."

Most of the CACs are nonprofit and nongovernmental, although some are operated by law enforcement agencies or a district attorney's office. They contract with the state Department of Human Resources and receive some state funding, but often have to scrape for donations and hold fund-raisers.

Many of the CACs are in single-family homes in subdivisions by design, according to Migliaro, former executive director at Anna Crawford.

"The CAC needs to be child-friendly," she said.

Carol Hanna, executive director of the Rainbow House Children's Resource Center in Warner Robins, which opened in 1986 and is believed to be the first CAC in Georgia, said her facility is in a small house in a residential area, and children feel comfortable there.

"It's not like being interviewed in a school or a doctor's office or a police station. It's made to look child-friendly and very comfortable for them," said Hanna.

The Savannah CAC is in an inner-city house, and the inside is filled with toys and coloring books. The interview room has been painted by students from the Savannah College of Art and Design to resemble an enchanted forest, according to Rice.

"When kids come here they assume it's my house," she said.

In addition to providing the initial interview with victims of abuse, CACs provide long-term therapy for them and nonoffending family members.

"We can't erase what has happened to these children or what they think has happened to them," said Hanna, "but we try to help them get on with their lives."

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