(Part one in a three-part series)
Gail Perkins had a vision. In 2006, the Mary Washington Hospital forensic nurse recognized the need for a Child Advocacy Center to serve Fredericksburg and surrounding areas.
"At my pediatric forensic nurse training in Richmond, I observed exams at hospitals and child advocacy centers. I really saw the difference in how children reacted when they were interviewed and had their exams at the Child Advocacy Center. Coming back to Fredericksburg, I went to my nurse manager and told her we need a Child Advocacy Center."
What is a Child Advocacy Center?
The goal of a Child Advocacy Center is to establish a collaborative approach to victims of child abuse. Instead of the child going to multiple agencies, thus requiring the child to tell his/her story repeatedly, a Child Advocacy Center serves as a one-stop location by having multiple agencies work collectively within one neutral building. The child is interviewed by a skilled forensic professional interviewer on the team's behalf. The Center can provide medical exams when necessary and applicable. The Center also follows the victim's case from when the complaint is first reported and continues through the prosecution of the case or until services are no longer needed.
In 2007, Perkins' idea took off. What started off as a task force soon became a steering committee in 2008, headed by LaBravia Jenkins, Commonwealth's Attorney for the City of Fredericksburg. The committee was a concerted effort of nurses, prosecutors, detectives, victim witness directors, and child protective service workers laying the framework for a Child Advocacy Center in the Fredericksburg area. The Center would serve victims of child maltreatment including sexual abuse, severe physical abuse, severe neglect, fatalities, and witness to a crime, ranging from infancy to 17-years-old. The Spotsylvania County Economic Development Authority helped secure a location for the Center.
"Everybody who was involved initially, actually worked with children and understood the impact of child abuse investigations," Jenkins said. "They understood our mission and really wanted it to be done well."
The steering committee visited other Child Advocacy Centers in Virginia, inquiring about their policies and operating procedures in order to discern the vision for their own center. "We wanted something beautiful and functional," Jenkins said. "We wanted a place where children like to come, so we wanted every detail to be important."
A Community Effort
The united spirit of the community helped move things along. Volunteers provided services ranging from painting murals to an Eagle Scout project which was instrumental in furnishing the children and teen rooms. Various area furniture stores also donated the majority of the furniture. "The people in the community have been so supportive if we need anything," Jenkins added. "The people who worked here were truly dedicated."
A team from Safe Harbor gathers in the "teen" room, a colorful, inviting place for teenagers to feel comfortable while at the facility. From left to right: LaBravia Jenkins, Commonwealth's Attorney-City of Fredericksburg; Gail Perkins, Manager, Forensic Services Department; Pamela Garrett, Executive Director; Cindy Gatewood, Director of Victim/Witness Assistance Program for Caroline County; Kristel DiGravio, Investigator for Caroline County Sheriff Department.
As for the naming of Safe Harbor, an interest group threw out many ideas until one stuck. "We wanted something positive, something safe," Perkins said. Pamela Garrett was hired as the Center's executive director and the facility opened its doors May 1, 2009. Safe Harbor currently serves City of Fredericksburg; Counties of Caroline, King George, and Spotsylvania.
Perkins reflected on the journey of opening the Center. "It took from the vision in 2006 to the opening in 2009. All along we were reminded, 'You are building a good foundation.' And I really feel we have a good foundation."
Look for part two of the "Safe Harbor" series in the May edition of Fredericksburg Parent and Family Magazine.
Kerry Pinto is a freelance writer living in Stafford with her husband and two children.