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Abused Children Find Sanctuary

Private-Public Partnership Benefits Abused Children

The building sitting at the corner of the access road at Arlington Boulevard and Javier Road looks like all the other office buildings dotting the busy roadway.

Inside the square, two-story brick structure, however, is anything but business as usual. Every room on the first floor is painted with colorful murals, ranging from beach scenes to underwater worlds to a jungle.

The kitchen looks like a '50s diner, complete with a couple of booths, and it is hard to ignore the large tree and small house in the center room.

The Childhelp USA Children's Center of Virginia, located in Fairfax, is a public-private partnership between Fairfax County agencies and Childhelp USA designed to put children at ease while officials investigate alleged cases of child sexual and physical abuse.

"Everything revolves around the child," said Maggie Thorpe, the center director. "Instead of moving the child from agency to agency, they all come to the child."

The center, open since May, has on-site offices for six-abuse prevention professionals from Childhelp; 10 child-protection social workers from the county's Child Protective Services; six police officers from the county police's Child Services Unit; one prosecutor from the Commonwealth Attorney's Office; one county attorney from the Fairfax County Attorney's Office; two mental-health professionals from the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, Youth & Family Mental Health Services; one abuse medical expert from Inova; and operational staff.

The center is a temporary stop, residential services for abused children are provided by the Alice C. Tyler Village of Childhelp East in Culpeper. The nonprofit Childhelp also has a prevention team that serves Northern Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C., which teaches children and adults about ways to prevent and to spot abuse.

"IT WAS A convenient marriage," said 2nd Lt. Charlie Bond, the county police's Child Services Unit supervisor, who along with six of his detectives, has an office at the center. "We have worked with Childhelp for years as far as education and support for the victims."

Bond said the center allows the agencies to do what they have to do to investigate each case, while minimizing the impact on the child.

"It cuts down on the number of times the child has to repeat his or her story," Bond said. "A child is not going to be like an adult and repeat it the same way each time, which is what the defense is looking for, the differences."

One of the ways the center accomplishes its mission is with a monitor room, which allow representatives from the various agencies hear and see an interview taking place in one of two interview rooms, one designed for small children and the other for teens.

A child enters one of the interview rooms with one adult, who asks questions about the alleged abuse. The others watch and listen from the monitor room via a hidden camera, which also tape records the interview. The others can also ask questions through an earpiece the interviewer is wearing. The interview can also be fed into a larger conference room, if more than a couple of people need to see the questioning. This way, the child is not overwhelmed by the number of people involved and can develop trust with the interviewer.

The various agencies can also use the less formal playroom, which is complete with a playhouse, stuffed animals, books, toys and a television equipped with DVD and VHS, to play only nonviolent, previously approved movies.

A medical examination room was also designed to be child-friendly with an underwater theme. The fish and other sea life on the walls and ceiling are colorful and each has its own expression. The equipment is state-of-the-art and appears less menacing than equipment used in a hospital setting.

"We're thrilled to have the center," said Susan Alexander, program manager for the county's Child Protective Services. "We get to limit the child to one interview and medical exam at a child-friendly environment instead of a hospital. Adults get scared at hospitals, imagine what it is like for children. It all contributes to reduce the trauma to the child."

ANOTHER WAY the center helps reduce the trauma is to provide a space where the accused offender, whether a parent, family member or stranger, is not allowed to enter regardless of whether the child is present. Thorpe said investigators interview the accused at other locations. This allows the child to feel safe.

At the center, the children are free to express their feelings through art, with puppets or role-playing with a dollhouse, by talking things over in the diner or while sitting in the safe environment of the playhouse.

"Other settings we've used and continue to use, such as a school, are not conducive to being a nurturing environment, a supportive environment," Alexander said. "Everything done there in terms of decorating, is geared toward the child. Part of what we have to do is make the child feel safe."

Thorpe said the concept of the center is something the agencies have talked about for years, but they were unable to come together on the best way to get it done. That's when Childhelp, which needed new office space anyway, stepped in.

"The concept of a center is long standing, everyone's been trying for eight years to get it off the ground and where to get the funding, but everyone was always stepping on each other's toes," Thorpe said. "Childhelp came in and said we have a building."

The county agencies use the center rent-free and each only pays for its own operation expenses. Childhelp, a 43-year-old national organization, receives its funding from private and corporate donations and grants. It is also seeking federal funding.

The center serves children ranging in age from infancy to teens, with the average age being 7 and then another increase with teen-aged girls, said Thorpe.

Bond said typically, Child Protective Services gets a referral for alleged abuse, and a social worker investigates the information. The case information will be handed over to the police if it involves sexual or physical abuse. "Last year, I gave 288 cases to my detectives, some of which may have only been courtesy interviews for other jurisdictions," Bond said. "We average 300 cases per year. That's just suspected abuse. And that number is nowhere near what Child Protective Services does because there are differences in what we can get involved in. Their cases can involve mental abuse or neglect."

Bond said sexual abuse accounts for about 20 percent of all abuse cases in the state. He also said his cases don’t include instances where patrol officers were dispatched and handled the situation as domestic violence cases.

In all, Childhelp reports that from July 2000 through June 2001, there were 39,507 children reported as victims of abuse in Virginia, with 8,993 children found to be victims in 5,963 cases that legally met the definition of abuse.

Thorpe recommends that anyone who suspects a child may be the victim of abuse, to call the Childhelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD, or the Child Protective Services Hotline at 703-324-7400. For more information about the center, call 703-208-1500 or visit the Web site at www.childhelpva.org.