BY LURAH LOWERY | BRISTOL HERALD COURIER
Editor’s note: This is the seventh story in a series about the United Way of Bristol, the agencies it funds and the people who are helped. The organization is in the midst of its annual fundraising campaign. For more information, go to www.unitedwaybristol.org/ or call 423-968-4912.
BRISTOL, Va. — The Children’s Advocacy Center of Bristol and Washington County provides a safe place for abused children or those who witness violent crimes so they can tell their stories and receive help from a unique friend.Nomad, the CAC’s facility dog, puts children at ease as they describe their abuse to investigators and counselors. Sometimes, Nomad, a Labrador-golden retriever mix, is even allowed to be with children in court.
The organization provides a place that children can go for forensic interviews with investigators and for therapy. Charlene Ohlinger, child protective services investigator for Bristol, said the center makes the process easier for children.
“By being able to come here to have their interview and to go through the process it alleviates the child from having to go through that and be retraumatized over and over again by having to retell the story,” she said.
Forensic interviews at the CAC are recorded, which prevents children from having to tell their stories to several people.
“We really rely on the CAC for some our most important interviews with children,” said Kristen McPherson, child protective services investigator with Washington County Department of Social Services. “It allows us all to participate in the interview without overwhelming the kids.”
Children are not overwhelmed, she said, because investigators are in a separate room and can talk to the interviewer with the child through walkie-talkies.
“We can all ask and get answered those really important questions without having a child sit face to face with two or three or four adults, which is really intimidating when you’re talking about something that’s already painful and traumatic,” McPherson said.
In 2013, there were 197 new child-related investigations in Bristol, Virginia and Washington County. More than 120 came to the CAC for forensic interviews. The combined population of children in the two areas is 14,000.
The CAC is one of the many agencies across the region that receives funding from United Way of Bristol. Funds from each year’s United Way campaign help fund the CAC, which is a private, nonprofit organization that receives little federal and state funding. This year’s campaign is underway with the goal of $1.425 million. Seventy-six percent of the goal had been met as of Dec. 15.
“Bristol, Virginia continues to have a rate of child abuse that is double what the average rate across Virginia is,” said Kathi Roark, director of CAC. “Washington County is higher than the state rate; it’s a little bit lower than Bristol’s. You’re looking at a region that together has a significant need. The geographic boundaries are very invisible when it comes to serving children and families because children and families are very mobile across those lines.”
Roark said there are factors that weigh heavily on how a child will recover from abuse — supportive caregivers and a quick active response after the abuse is reported. Part of that response is through therapy including counseling, ways to protect themselves and play therapy, which is provided by the CAC’s counselor, registered play therapist, and Nomad’s handler, Donna Callis.
Some children, Callis said, are unable to explain what happened to them or are unable to express their emotions. She provides counseling to children, safety sessions and play therapy. Safety sessions provide children with steps they can take to prevent abuse and to stay safe. Play therapy allows children to use toys and dolls to role play what happened to them.
“We have a very good track record of children being kept safe once their abuse is disclosed,” Roark said. “We have a good rate of children healing and recovering. We have a good rate of criminals being held responsible for the crimes they’ve done.”
After there are criminal charges, Sharon Reed, director of Washington County’s Victim Assistance Program, provides victims and their families with information about the offender’s incarceration, mediates between the CAC and investigators, and provides support and guidance to victims and their families.
Reed, Callis, Ohlinger, McPherson, Bristol Virginia Police Department Detective Robin McCoy and others make up the CAC’s team. The CAC, which opened in 1997, was the first such center created in the state.
“I think one of the biggest positive things about our team and what we do is something that we will never really have an answer to because it’s all of the abuse that we prevent,” McPherson said. “You never know what is not going to happen now because you have an offender in jail or because you’ve empowered a child to say no or you’ve empowered a child to help another child disclose something that’s happened to them.”
The bottom line, Roark said, is to ensure that children are safe and healthy and will recover.
“I have seen these victims get stronger after coming for services; not just the victim themselves but the family unit,” Reed said. “I’ve seen them become more empowered as they move forward through this. They’re able to react and go about through society in a happier mode; a more confident persona and they are empowered. They have overcome that trauma and that abuse.”