Each day, children in Bradley County become victims of abuse or witness crimes. Each weekday, the 10th Judicial District Children’s Advocacy Center in Cleveland sees about three children who are …
Each day, children in Bradley County become victims of abuse or witness crimes. Each weekday, the 10th Judicial District Children’s Advocacy Center in Cleveland sees about three children who are believed to have been abused or witnessed a crime.
Kelley Weber, assistant director of The H.O.P.E. Center Inc., which oversees the Children's Advocacy Center, recently shared its work with the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club.
“Our goal is always to reduce trauma for our kids,” Weber said. “There is, unfortunately, a really big need for what we do.”
The Health, Opportunity, Protection and Encouragement Center, Inc., now called The H.O.P.E. Center, Inc., was founded in 1993 in Athens. It initially offered services to support adults affected by domestic violence and sexual assault.
In 2000, it partnered with the 10th Judicial District Attorney’s office to launch the 10th Judicial District Children’s Advocacy Center. This center assists with investigations of crimes involving children and provides support for children affected by crime.
In 2010, a second Children’s Advocacy Center was opened in Cleveland. This location now exclusively serves residents of Bradley and Polk counties.
Last year, the Children’s Advocacy Centers in Cleveland and Athens assisted 546 children who had allegedly been abused or witnessed a crime. Close to half of the children — 254 — were from Bradley County alone.
Referrals to the Children’s Advocacy Centers in Cleveland and Athens come from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and area law enforcement agencies.
Once a child is referred, he or she will visit the center for what is called a forensic interview. A specially-trained forensic interviewer will ask the child about what happened while avoiding asking biased questions.
“They only have to tell the story one time,” Weber said, adding this cuts down on children having to relive traumatic situations and on children potentially changing their answers.
The center helps children ages 2 through 18, and the interviews are done in a kid-friendly environment. While the interviewer does encourage the child to share his or her story, Weber said the child is never forced to share.
Using a video camera feed, a team of people involved in the child’s case, including representatives of the Department of Children's Services, remotely view the interview. Once the interview is done, they then sit down and discuss the child’s case.
“We are all sitting down and trying to figure out what’s best for the kids,” Weber said.
The center also has a specially-trained nurse on staff who can conduct forensic medical exams, checking for signs of physical or sexual abuse. Weber noted the center provides a welcoming space for this, so the child does not have to visit a “scary” hospital emergency room.
Weber said she or another trained staff member will join the nurse and child during a forensic medical exam. She will sing songs, blow bubbles and do whatever it takes to keep the child distracted while the nurse documents any signs of abuse.
“I had one child actually ask me if she could come back the next day to play,” Weber said. “I don’t ever want to see a child have to return, but it made me feel good to know she felt comfortable.”
Counseling is also available for children who are interviewed and examined and are believed to have been victims of abuse.
She also noted the center has a family advocate on staff who can assist the entire family. She added that, in some cases of child abuse, the “non-offending caregiver” has undergone trauma as well.
“Nine times out 10, the allegations are about someone the family knows or is living with,” Weber said. “The trauma can affect more than just the child.”
All the services the center offers, including counseling, are free for the children and their families “for a lifetime.” The center's main funding source is the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs, but it also receives funding from a number of other sources, such as the United Way.
The center also offers community outreach in the form of training sessions to raise awareness about child abuse and effects of childhood trauma.
Weber, who is a former school teacher, recounted how within her first weeks on the job, six of her former students were seen for forensic interviews. That made her wonder if she had missed any signs of abuse.
“It proved to me that we all really need to be educated on what to look for,” Weber said.
The center now offers child abuse awareness training to teachers and others who work with children.
It also offers parenting classes which touch on things like safe childcare practices. Weber explained some abuse cases have stemmed from parents leaving children with unsafe babysitters.
It also offers training on adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, to help people learn how traumas like child abuse can affect children for years to come.
Anyone who believes a child is being abused should report the abuse to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services by calling its Child Abuse Hotline at 877-237-0004 or visiting https://apps.tn.gov/carat online. If there is an immediate emergency, call 911.
“We are all mandatory reporters in the state of Tennessee,” Weber said, adding one does not need to be a teacher or childcare worker to report abuse. “If you see something, report it. … The child’s safety depends on it.”
For more information on The H.O.P.E. Center and the Children’s Advocacy Center, visit www.thehopecenterinc.com.
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