BY RICK CHARMOLI | October 26, 2015
WEXFORD — A new partnership between Wexford County and a national organization with local ties is looking to help protect children when they need it most.
Recently, Wexford County has entered into talks with the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center. The Traverse City center is a regional response center for the protection and well-being of children. It provides prevention education and multidisciplinary intervention in the investigation, assessment and treatment of child sexual abuse, child physical abuse and for children who witness violence.
Children’s Advocacy Centers were first developed in the United States in the 1980s and were designed to reduce the stress on child abuse victims and families created by traditional child abuse investigation and prosecution procedures and to improve the effectiveness of the response.
Sue Bolde is the executive director of the Traverse City CAC and she said the goal of the organization is to do the work that needs to be done in any abuse case that is sensitive, supportive and safe for the child. Currently, Bolde said the Traverse City office serves five counties including Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Antrim, Kalkaska and Benzie as well as the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
“At our core our model is teamwork. We bring everyone (law enforcement, child protective services, and the prosecuting attorney) together at the front end and we put the child first,” she said. “The CAC model brings the system to the child.”
For example, if the team comprised of the different agencies decides a child would benefit from counseling services, the decision can be made immediately and care can begin from either right at the CAC’s office or through a referral, Bolde said.
Wexford County Sheriff’s Office Detective Sgt. Chris Piskor said the benefit the CAC provides is huge. It not only helps the child and their family deal with abuse but also helps law enforcement. In particular, Piskor said the CAC can do the forensic interview of the victim.
A forensic interview is a structured conversation with a child intended to elicit detailed information about a possible event or events a child may have experienced or witnessed. There are several purposes of a forensic interview. They include obtaining information from a child that may be helpful in a criminal investigation; assessing the safety of a child’s living arrangements; obtaining information that will either corroborate or refute allegations or suspicions of abuse and neglect; and assessing the need for medical treatment and psychological care.
“We can’t ask leading questions. You can’t ask follow up questions,” Piskor said of the forensic interview process. “We don’t have the facility here at the sheriff’s office that is conducive to doing an interview with a child. The CAC is more like your living room and it creates an environment that makes the child feel more safe. For us, that is a huge advantage.”
Piskor also said there is only one chance to do a forensic interview and while he is trained to do them, he does not do them all the time. The CAC has someone who does these on a regular basis and has the expertise to make sure the process is done correctly each time.
Bolde said the person who does the interviews at the CAC is trained in child development and follows the strict protocols for forensic interviews.
“In more rural areas, police are doing a lot of different things. It is unfair to expect them to switch roles and feel good about their work,” she said. “That is why we are a tremendous assistance to rural communities.”
Although Bolde said the CAC is in the process of getting an agreement in place with Wexford County, she also said once that is in place she will be looking at finding local partners to have linkage agreements with. That would be for things such as medical or mental health partners but also other services.
Healing Private Wounds Executive Director Shirley Petersen said she believes having the CAC partner with Wexford County is a great idea and one she would be willing to support. She also said she believes her organization would be willing to be one of the local partners with the CAC.
“I believe it is a good thing. The more agencies that collaborate together and spread the news. It (abuse) is out there and there are services available,” Petersen said. “We need to work as a community. That is important.”
While Piskor, as well as Undersheriff Trent Taylor, have said the rate of sexual abuse and criminal sexual conduct doesn’t seem to be rising, so far this year the sheriff’s office has investigated 24 cases. Piskor said he looked at 19 of the 24 cases and 17 of those 19 he looked at had victims under the age of 18.
Petersen said when you look at the stats, it can be alarming. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in five females and one in seven males will experience some sort of sexual abuse. Most victims who experience sexual abuse are under the age of 6.
While those numbers are alarming, Petersen said what is more shocking is there are probably more that go unreported. That said, Petersen is encouraged to see more people, both males and females, coming forward looking for help.
“It is good that people are more free to talk about it and we are getting more younger people who are talking about it. The younger you begin the healing the better you will be,” she said. “They don’t carry the shame, and fall into the pitfalls of feeling unworthy, dirty or using drugs and alcohol to cover up how they are feeling.”
For more information about the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center, log on to www.traversebaycac.org and for more information about or to find support from Healing Private Wounds in Cadillac, log on to www.healingprivatewounds.org or call (231) 846-4495.