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Within These Walls

Richmond's Child Advocacy Center is working to change



To children, the Child Advocacy Center is the "castle building" because of its location inside Old City Hall, that sprawling Gothic masterpiece on East Broad Street. Kids know it as a kind of haven. "It's a magical place that they often don't want to leave," says Lisa Wright, a therapist who works at the center.

To get there, you descend a flight of stairs into the bowels of the majestic building, where a sign on the opaque glass door prompts visitors to knock loudly.

At once you feel immersed in a chapter of Alice in Wonderland. Inside, the rooms are airy and bright. Happy-faced sea creatures — crabs, fish, starfish and seahorses painted orange, yellow and purple — appear to float upon the walls and greet visitors. Comfy sofas and chairs form a reception area, where a large aquarium hums and bubbles. It's filled with tetras and goldfish, its glass dotted with tiny, finger-sized smudges. A high ceiling of small glass blocks enhances the underwater theme.

There is a snack room just past the waiting area where fruit juice, sodas, pretzels, peanuts and raisins are kept. Two rooms toward the back hold an array of toys and props, a couple of wooden dollhouses and miniature sandboxes. Tiny plastic action figures depicting everything from superheroes to ugly villains are lined neatly on shelves above the sandboxes.

Anyplace else, a child would make the figures come to life in a happy world of make-believe. But here, in the therapy rooms, the figures are often used to tell stories that are as tragic as they are real. An explosive little girl who had been sexually and physically abused built one volcano after the next in the sand, Wright recalls. One of the "dollhouses" is actually a wooden model courthouse that therapists use to explain to children what happens when and if they testify in court.

Everyone agrees that it's nearly impossible to gauge how big and pervasive the problem of child abuse is. However, when it comes to statistics on abuse, experts disagree on how to interpret the data. Is child abuse and neglect more underreported or overestimated?

Enter the Child Advocacy Center. While relatively new to Richmond, it's taking on an increasingly significant role in child abuse cases. Because of the growing disparity in theory, many people are turning to centers such as this one to determine which way the pendulum is swinging and why. The advocacy center doesn't charge for its services, and it's the only agency in the area that pulls nearly every type of child abuse professional under one roof along with victims and their families.

Today, a Wednesday in late February, 4-year-old twin girls have come to the center. One, Renee, is being interviewed. The girls reside with their dad out of town, but they spend weekends with their mom and her boyfriend in Richmond. The girls' maternal grandmother recently reported to Child Protective Services that she suspects the boyfriend is sexually abusing Renee.

Satara Graham, a caseworker with Child Protective Services, and Shamika Murrell, a nurse with VCU Medical Center's Child Protection Team, sit in a tiny white room at a table topped with notepads, pens and a microphone. It's a tight squeeze with three chairs. A TV screen is before them.

In a room across the hall, Tish Edmonds, a Richmond Police detective with the Youth and Family Crimes Team, sits with Renee. The table in this room is child-sized and has a small chair to match.

Graham starts to feed Edmonds a question through the microphone, then stops. "It's hard not to lead," she says of questions a defense attorney would rebuff. "This case, we think grandma may have coached her." They consider this because the grandmother has demonstrated animosity toward the boyfriend.

Edmonds' questions to Renee are heard through audio hooked up to the monitor.

"Do you know why you're here today?" Edmonds asks Renee. "I want to talk to you about what happened at Mommy's house." (Edmonds has interviewed the child previously, when the grandmother brought her to the police station, before coming to the Child Advocacy Center.)

"I'm not scared of the dark anymore," Renee responds.

Edmonds asks her a series of questions about her relationship with the mother's boyfriend and whether he's ever hurt her.

She answers no.

"Do you know what the difference is between the truth and a lie?" Edmonds asks.

Murrell whispers an example to Edmonds through the microphone. Renee articulates the difference between the truth and the lie. Murrell and Graham give each other a high five.

Half sitting and half standing, Renee eats peanuts and fidgets with a box of tissues on the table. There are crayons and paper on the table, too, and Edmonds asks her to draw a picture of a little girl. She does.

"Has anybody ever touched your private parts?" Edmonds asks.

"No," Renee responds.

"Can you tell me again what you told me at the police station?" Edmonds says.

Renee utters the name of her mom's boyfriend and says: "He put his penis in my mouth." Edmonds asks if anyone told her to say that.

"No," she replies, "but he did." Renee continues, explaining that the boyfriend had come into the room she shares with her sister to give her medicine. Edmonds asks how many times she believes it happened — one, two, three, four, five?

The child can't remember. Edmonds asks how long ago it was — before or after Christmas? Next she asks Renee how it made her feel.

"Bad!" she exclaims.

"Do you want to live with [the boyfriend] again?" Edmonds asks.

"No!" she answers. By now, Renee is clearly agitated. She contradicts herself by saying it was all a dream that her sister had and told her about, because they'd seen "some stuff" in a movie. She says she was scared to talk about it.

"We're not going to get anything more out of her," Murrell says to Edmonds through the microphone. Renee's mood seems to lighten instantly when she darts out of the room. She finds her sister and her dad in the waiting room.

Meanwhile, Edmonds joins Murrell and Graham in the monitoring room, where they're taking notes for their files. Edmonds shakes her head in frustration. Her take on the interview is unambiguous: "The [defense] lawyer will tear that to shreds."

It's the nature of child abuse cases — even those using closed-circuit tapings, says Holly Oehrlein, Children's Justice Act coordinator at the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. "One in five kids is going to recant," she says. "We teach that in training."

Experts in child abuse treatment and prevention have long professed that one in four girls and one in six boys will be victims of some form of sexual abuse before age 18. And most insist the number is even higher, citing a one in three number for girls. The figures stem from a widely published 1988 study by sexual abuse expert Diana Russell.

But some researchers, including David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, say those figures are antiquated and do a disservice by falsely skewing public perception of abuse. Coincidentally, Finkelhor recently led what's referred to as the Multi-Site Evaluation of Children's Advocacy Centers.

Far from the prevailing public perception of rising child abuse, Finkelhor says, nationwide sexual assault against youths ages 12 to 17 plunged 79 percent from 1993 through 2003, and the number of sexual abuse cases involving kids of all ages fell 39 percent. He cites increases in everything from incarceration to therapy to psychiatric drugs as reasons for the decline.

But the latest data from the Virginia Department of Social Services reveals some puzzling developments: The number of reported cases of child abuse and neglect statewide increased from 6,565 to 6,976, or 6.3 percent, from July 1, 2003 to June 30, 2004. During the same period, Richmond saw a precipitous drop in its reported cases, from 315 to 175 — a decrease of 44.4 percent. (Reported child-abuse cases decreased in Chesterfield County by 29.4 percent during the same period, but increased 5.9 percent in Henrico County.)

At face value, the data could indicate a dramatic decline in actual child abuse in the city. Or it could point to something much more foreboding: that fewer children and/or fewer parents are reporting incidents of sexual abuse and neglect to authorities.

Oehrlein maintains that the one-in-four and one-in-six ratios are in line with reality. Of Finkelhor's findings, she says: "I just don't think it's accurate. We must count differently."

So where does the Child Advocacy Center fit in?

For the last 18 months, the center has been working to root itself in Richmond the way the other 10 centers have statewide. Richmond's effort to open its advocacy center began in 2003 when, after a spike in the number of locally reported abuse cases, Jeanine Harper, executive director of Greater Richmond Stop Child Abuse Now (SCAN), along with Dr. Robin Foster at VCU Medical Center, pushed to establish a center here to better coordinate and track cases of child abuse and neglect.

The advocacy centers function as a kind of home base where child abuse professionals converge to determine whether and how to build an abuse case and provide treatment for the victims and their families. Here, the experts come to the child rather than having the child and his or her family come to them.

Before the advent of Child Advocacy Centers, alleged victims of abuse would undergo multiple interviews at various locations, perhaps as many as 15, Oehrlein notes, all amid the turmoil of the trauma.

Consider it: A child might have to go to a noisy, crowded emergency room to be examined. She'd go to the police to be interviewed in an interrogation room the size of a closet. She'd have to go to the Child Protective Services offices, where tiny cubbies make it impossible to have any privacy, then, perhaps, off to juvenile court to meet with the city attorney, and to the circuit court to meet with the prosecutor.

And so the child would be forced to talk about the incident over and over and over again. Chances were good the child would be retraumatized and exhausted before the one- to two-year court process had even begun. At the advocacy center, conversely, there is one interview, maybe two.

The philosophy behind the center is simple: The children most likely to rebound from abuse are those who have trusting relationships with adults. While the center is relatively new to Richmond, the model itself is not. It was created by Alabama Congressman Bud Cramer, who instituted the first center — now the National Children's Advocacy Center — in Huntsville in 1985. It was a time when child abuse, especially sexual abuse, was just beginning to be regarded as widespread. Today more than 600 centers exist worldwide, with some slated to open in such far-flung places as Iceland and Japan, says Michele Savage, development director for the Huntsville center.

In order to get to the advocacy center on Broad twice a week, Julia takes a city bus from her school in Mosby Court to Old City Hall. The journey is both a testament to her dreams and her nightmares. There are plenty of ways she'd rather spend an afternoon, such as hanging out with friends or writing poetry, her passion. But Julia knows the therapy she gets now could help her heal and drive away the demon that haunts her.

A man raped Julia at a friend's sleepover Jan. 8, just a month before her 14th birthday. She felt ashamed and afraid, she says, and waited two days to tell someone. When she did, she told her aunt, who told Julia's grandmother, Julia's father and the authorities.

The man who raped her is 50. A family friend. She learned later that he'd been accused of raping his own daughter. The man fled after sexually assaulting Julia, but he was picked up by Richmond police and later convicted of aggravated sexual battery. He's in jail, awaiting sentencing.

Julia says she considers what would have happened if she'd never told anyone, never gotten help — how the fear and self-loathing would have consumed her. Today, four months have passed and Julia is beginning to feel safe again and to find words to describe what happened that night. Being raped, she says, was an out-of-body experience so foul and horrific that her mind drifted like a balloon away from her physical self.

"I spaced out," she says, which made her feel guilty. "At first I was like, it's my fault, it's my fault, it's my fault." An intern with Richmond's Child Advocacy Center who was counseling Julia convinced her otherwise. She kept saying, "It's not your fault. It just happened," Julia recalls.

Beverly Liles has seen it happen to babies — a lot of them, she says. A certified pediatric nurse practitioner with VCU Medical Center's Child Protection Team, Liles conducts many of the forensic medical exams at the advocacy center. She knows some of her patients can't speak for themselves. Mothers who suspect abuse often tell Liles problems they've found, such as "Her opening didn't look right today when I washed her," or they'll remark that the child is displaying odd behaviors such as "humping," or touching other people inappropriately, or touching herself more than what is normal.

The medical exam room is to the back and left of the therapy rooms. It resembles a regular room in a doctor's office. Here, Liles "takes a history" that lasts about two hours. She draws blood in cases where contracting sexually transmitted diseases is a possibility and uses a culpascope, which measures, magnifies and photographs injuries made to the genitalia, even those unseen to the naked eye.

More than other child abuse professionals, Liles is up against time. "Ninety percent of abuse doesn't leave any physical signs," she says. "If they come within 72 hours after they've been raped, there may be semen or DNA." But children rarely report cases of abuse soon. Even if the physical evidence doesn't appear to support a criminal investigation, Liles says, the medical exam at the Child Advocacy Center is important, especially when the alternative would be the chaos of a hospital emergency room. What's more, she says, "You see a look of relief on a kid's face when you reassure them that it's OK down there."

In the case of 4-year-old Renee, Oehrlein of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services says the advocacy center could greatly improve the prosecution's chances of winning a verdict. At first blush, Renee's recanting of the incident would scare off authorities or therapists without special training. "If you don't know that [one-in-five victims recant early in the process], you think, Oh crap, this case just went to hell." That's where the closed-circuit capability comes into play, she says.

She predicts that one of the most immediate results of putting an advocacy center into place here could be felt in the courtrooms. As more attorneys, such as Lyn Bufton, one of four Richmond city attorneys who handle abuse cases, regularly use the center to conduct taped, closed-circuit interviews and introduce them as evidence or testimony in the courtroom, there could be a trend in seeing "a lot of offenders making plea agreements," Oehrlein says.

Bufton, who often shuffles 20 files a day and handles 45 to 70 abuse-and-neglect-related cases a week, agrees. "The [center] really enables us to use that statute," Bufton says, which allows such taped interviews of children to be introduced as testimony in certain cases. Her job is to investigate whether a child is in danger and should be removed from the home. "We deal with the physical placement of the child and what services should follow. The CAC is the one place in the city where all the stakeholders can come together for child welfare," she says.

Specific to her role, Bufton says the advocacy center brings "the child in for the initial forensic interview, thus maximizing the capability of gathering all the information that child has to offer." Getting better information faster helps Bufton build a better case.

A better case is what Monica Jones wishes she'd had in 2004. That year 25 children died in Virginia from abuse or neglect, and Jones' son was nearly No. 26.

It was the weekend of July Fourth and Jones left her kids with her friend's aunt, a woman she'd known and left the kids with before. But this time, the woman wound up torturing her youngest boy, Micah. He came home and "his face was all swollen and red," she says. "He had bruises from his knees to his ankles on both sides of his legs from where she kicked him," Jones says.

Micah was 5 when the woman who kept him bit him, hit him, scratched him, threw him down a flight of stairs and refused to let him go to the bathroom. He was forced to sleep in his own urine and feces before she put him in a closet to shut him up. She starved him too. "She told him she'd kill him or kill me if he told anybody," Jones says.

Her case illustrates how the child abuse system worked before the advocacy center opened. She sought help for Micah and harsh justice for the abuser. She says she didn't get either. "If I had handled this the right way — " she begins, fighting back tears.

Jones "bribed" her two older boys who were there that weekend but didn't witness much by telling them she'd take them to Kings Dominion if they told what they knew. The older siblings filled in some gaps. Jones called Child Protective Services, took Micah to the hospital and then to the police station. The medical exam at the hospital confirmed the cuts and bruises were fresh. She and Micah later met with mental health counselors and lawyers.

"We had to go through it all, over and over again," she says of the ordeal. "I can't even remember how many times he had to tell it."

Then came court. Micah had to testify with his abuser present. He was so terrified at seeing the woman in the courtroom that he froze before the prosecutor, the defendant's lawyer and the judge, and couldn't answer the questions as clearly and decisively as he had in earlier interviews.

"Here I am thinking we're going to lose," Jones recalls, despite putting her son through a tedious and tiresome process. They won — sort of. The woman was convicted of misdemeanor assault Sept. 23, 2004. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail, Jones says. She served 15 days — on weekends.

Jones had hoped to put the trauma behind them. Instead it lives on. Now 7, Micah is a different boy. Crying, Jones says: "He won't sleep by himself. He pees in his bed every night. He's scared that she's in the closet or that she's going to come in through the window. The only thing I can say to him to make him feel safe is, 'If I see her, I'll kill her.' He fights a lot now and gets angry at the dog. His attitude — oh my God, it's totally different. I'm really overprotective of him. He's turned into a big baby all over again, talking baby talk. At a sleepover, he made himself throw up just to be able to come home."

Jones says after the court case was concluded, Micah received little support other than a few counseling sessions that Medicaid covered. Overcome by emotion, she blames the professionals whom she sought for help. "They're total failures all the way around," she says. A few weeks ago, Jones says Micah started talking about killing himself and wanting to be dead. She called Child Protective Services again and was referred to the Child Advocacy Center, which opened four months after Jones first reported the case. Today at the center Micah has just met with a therapist. He hears his mom through a closed door and opens it, smiling. "Hey mumma," he says, swinging from the door, "I said what happened to me."

n its first year, from November 2004 to November 2005, the advocacy center served 102 children, says Abigail Kauffman Wyche, the center's coordinator. Since January, 53 new children have entered the system. And Wright says there are 35 active mental-health cases and a waiting list.

The Child Advocacy Center model recently got its first official nod from the General Assembly in this recent session. Lawmakers allocated $1 million to the program statewide.

For now, the potential and praise for the advocacy center seem unending. Officials hope to expand the center and offer more services to more children and families — and even attract participation from nearby counties, Wyche says. Coordinating a true team approach among separate entities still evokes "turf issues," Oehrlein adds. Another disruption to the center is the high turnover rate, especially in the city, among police and workers with Child Protective Services.

What's more pressing are the outcomes of the advocacy center's cases. After all, countless studies have shown that children who are sexually abused are more likely to endure a range of emotional and health problems such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and contemplate suicide — particularly those who are raised in poor, low-income neighborhoods. And when they grow up, they stand a greater chance of being unemployed, homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Despite concerns that 4-year-old Renee's grandmother may have coached her before her interview, police filed charges against the mother's boyfriend.

Monica Jones, who desperately wanted professional help for her son, hasn't shown up or called the center in several weeks, however. She didn't return Style's calls requesting a follow-up interview for this story.

Julia still takes the bus to the Child Advocacy Center twice a week. On a recent ride, a woman noticed the workbook she was reading. It's titled "Shining Through: Pulling It Together After Sexual Abuse," by local experts Mindy Loiselle and Leslie Bailey Wright. The stranger on the bus warned Julia not to let abuse mess up her life. She, too, had been sexually assaulted. But she spent years numbing the pain with drugs and alcohol.

Julia figures she'll let poetry extract her pain.

"I'm still angry he took my virginity," Julia says, "but I don't have nightmares anymore." Her latest poem seems to reflect it. It's called "Pieces of Me," and it begins this way: "When you wake you will dance again and again." S

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