Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center in Fredericksburg provides child abuse victims with a child friendly environment where professionals from multiple agencies come together to address the child's abuse. In part two of a three part series, members of the multi-disciplinary team at Safe Harbor reflect on one of their first cases.
"When we first opened our doors in May 2009, the first exam we did was with a little girl who came in with her mother. You can see the fright on her face. She's holding her mother's hand with the death grip," said Gail Perkins, Forensic Nurse.
Executive Director Pamela Garrett greets the mother and daughter and leads them to a playroom—a bright, inviting room adorned with colorful murals and activities for children. Safe Harbor has two such rooms at the facility -- one geared for children and one designed for teens.
Perkins continues, "The little girl sits behind the little table and she's not letting go of her mom's hand. I went into the room and colored with her, and then she released her mom's hand a little bit and then a little bit more."
A detective comes into the playroom, before the actual interview, to build a rapport with the girl. The girl agrees to go be interviewed and is led into the children's interview room, another welcoming, kid-friendly room, where she discloses details of her abuse to the detective, a trained forensic interviewer.
During this time, a multi-disciplinary team (MDT) is assembled in the conference room. They are able to see the interview through a live video-feed. This team is generally comprised of any or all of the following:
• Law Enforcement
• Child Protective Services
• Commonwealth's Attorney
• Forensic Nurse
• Victim Advocate
• Mental Health Therapist
• Safe Harbor Staff
Through an earpiece on the interviewing detective, the MDT is able to ask questions, so that the child is only being interviewed by one person. In this particular case, the girl needed an exam.
"The girl and her mother came into the exam room. She did awesome. After the exam, she went back to the playroom where she actively played. It was different child. If this little girl had gone initially to the hospital, I don't think I would have been able to do an exam, just based on the level of fear she had when she walked in here," Perkins said.
After the interview, the MDT sits down to discuss the case. Even in cases where it's found that abuse has not occurred, the team might discover other ways to support the child and the family.
"The good thing with the team dynamic is that we can take the information given to us and, in the cases where it's found not to be abuse, we can take information from the parents and the child and attempt to figure out what is going on," said Cindy Gatewood, Director of Victim/Witness Assistance Program for Caroline County.
Investigator Kristel DiGravio of the Caroline County Sheriff Department adds, "Coming here and getting key information that helps me build a case where this abuser is going to go to prison for what they did to the child is a phenomenal thing. I will not do child interviews without coming to the advocacy center."
When leaving the facility, the child is given a comforting item. Most of these items, ranging from backpacks to fleece blankets, are donations from local churches and the community.
"When it was time to leave, the little girl took her mom's hand. When she was at the door she looked up at her mother and said, 'That was fun.' Pam and I just looked at each other and said, 'That's what all these years of work was about,'" said Perkins.
Look for part three of the "Safe Harbor" series in the June edition of Fredericksburg Parent and Family Magazine.
Safe Harbor will be hosting a golf tournament fundraiser on May 14th, 2012, at the Fredericksburg Country Club. For more information, please visit the Safe Harbor web site at www.safeharborva.org
Kerry Pinto is a freelance writer living in Stafford with her husband and two children.