Making a safe haven

Published 2:03 am Friday, December 15, 2006

By By ANDY HAMILTON / Niles Daily Star
NILES – The only way he would talk was with a blanket draped over his head.
It was the only method that made him feel comfortable enough to disclose the painful events of being sexually abused. But, he was talking, and that was the important thing.
"You know what? If they want to stand on their heads and talk, that's fine with me," said Barbara Welke, director and forensic interviewer for The Children's Assessment Center of Berrien County.
The center offers a safe, comfortable place for sexually abused children to relay their stories to prosecutors, police officers and Child Protective Services – people who can legally hold accountable those responsible for their crimes against the child. Plus, bringing those investigative organizations together at the same time means the child only has to tell the story once – aside from the required testimony in court – instead of painfully repeating it through each phase of prosecution.
The center – formerly a one-room schoolhouse – sits outside St. Joseph, surrounded by farmland and vineyards. The doors are always locked, and anyone entering is first seen on the front surveillance system camera.
The inside is painted in "neutral and soothing" colors of baby blue and grey. On the walls hang images from "Where the Wild Things Are," and also a brightly colored quilt with tiny sewn shapes of children's hands crafted by one of the county's prosecutors.
"We wanted to make a place where you were 15 and comfortable walking through the door, or 4," Welke said.
On staff at the center are Welke; Executive Director of the Center's parent agency, The Berrien County Council for Children, Tia Miller; a therapist, Lee Gallay; part-time therapist and forensic interviewer, Sue Bartholomew; family advocate Jaime Faith; and office administrator Karrie Turner. Providing educational seminars around the county is Lito Ramirez.
The multi-disciplinary team consists of a uniformed police officer investigating the case, a Child Protective Services worker, a county prosecutor and the forensic interviewer. The therapist and caregiver, parent or guardian become part of the team later.
The forensic interview, Welke said, is designed to elicit facts about the child's experience, "but to do it in a way that's neutral and non-leading." The child's story is critical for prosecution because physical abuse is only apparent in 5 to 15 percent of sexual abuse cases, Welke said.
"So that makes it critical that a child is able to provide reliable, meaningful statements about their experience," she added.
The center has two interview rooms, both of which have a camera and a one-way mirror. The child and the forensic interviewer – and only those two – sit in the interview room, and the remaining members of the multi-disciplinary team observe from the other side of the mirror.
The interviewer also wears a wireless earpiece that allows team members to ask questions. Sometimes, Welke said, the interviewer may miss getting a piece of information from the child that is vital for the prosecutor and officer to know for the case.
The process is guided by a nine-phase protocol adopted in Michigan and across the country, Welke said. She also said there have never been issues raised about non-objective interviewing at the center, which is one of 19 of its kind in the state.
"By following that protocol, we can say that child was interviewed just the same as the other 1,500 children," Welke said. "I think that's one of the beauties of videotape. I think they can see that really in a neutral, non-leading interview."
Only two copies of each interview exist – one goes with the prosecutor and the other with the officer or to Child Protective Services, and the defense attorney is allowed to view it, but not keep it. And, never does a copy stay at the center, Welke said.
"The prosecutors in the county are wonderful to work with on these cases," Welke said. "I'm sure in this county, we pursue cases they wouldn't in other counties."
The Center has worked with 16 prosecutors and 19 law agencies within Berrien County to perform 1,500 forensic interviews, 37 percent of which were south county cases. More than half of the referrals in 2006 came from Child Protective Services, and 260 of those referrals were for sexually abused children.
Other reasons for interviews in 2006 were physical abuse (34), neglect (5) and witness to violence (11). The majority of the 310 children interviewed this year were between the ages of 5 and 9 (124). Nearly 200 of those were Caucasian, 79 were African American and 17 were Hispanic.
A non-parent or non-caregiver was responsible for 32 percent of the cases handled at the center in 2006. An "other known person" was the perpetrator in 39 percent of the incidents, 18 percent of the time the violator was a parent or step-parent, and the caregiver or boyfriend or girlfriend were responsible 11 percent of the time.
Welke said she too is affected by many of the interviews, though obviously not the same as the children. And, she added, it's actually easier to be the interviewer than to view from behind the mirror.
"When I'm in the room, I'm OK and thinking about the next question; I'm involved sort of in the structure of the interview," Welke said. " To hear the story and the pain, that's a lot harder."
Welke also said many of the officers have admitted feeling the pain of observing a child recount the tale of being sexually abused. Many of them, she said, have told her they "would rather go into a bar and break up a drunken brawl."
The process after the interviewer begins by engaging the caregiver along with the rest of the multi-disciplinary team. Then, the child begins therapy sessions with Lee Gallay.
Each child that meets with Gallay also has the opportunity to become a part of the Worry Wall, a heart-wrenching list of fears no young person should have knowledge of. The Worry Wall is the places for victims to list their deepest fears, and also see that other children their age are experiencing the same feelings.
The fears are written on colored note cards. The worse the fear, the higher it goes on the Worry Wall.
The counseling lasts anywhere from three to eight months, Welke said. The communication is maintained at least until the case goes to trial, which Welke said can be a long, grueling process for a child.
The center is completely funded through grants, donations and fundraising events. The main source of money is the Victim's Of Crime Grant, which is generated from fines accessed in criminal court.
To make a donation to the Berrien County Council for Children and the Children's Assessment Center, call (269) 556-9640.