By ELLIOTT POTTER
When it comes to helping children adjust to investigations of physical, sexual and emotional trauma they have endured, few approaches are as comforting as words of reassurance from those who have been down that road before.
Those soothing voices of experience often belong to other children. At the Child Advocacy Center of Onslow County, a division of One Place, messages from past victims are collected in a three-ring binder that is offered to each new child who comes in for treatment and evaluation.
When the children arrive, before medical exams and interviews begin, they can leaf through the binder and learn from others who have been through the process. “You can see the tension leaving their body as they read,” said Kathleen Holbrook, director of the center. “Often the parent will sit with them on the couch and they will read it together, and they will read it aloud. Then the child knows it’s going to be OK.”
When the initial evaluations are over, the young people use paper and pens left out by staff to express their own thoughts, which in turn are passed along to others. Some of the children are excited and quite expressive; others are shy and hide their messages to be discovered later.
The Child Advocacy Center has been a function of the Onslow County Partnership for Children, which recently changed its name to One Place to reflect the diversity of programs offered to children and parents. The advocacy center’s role has continued to expand, bringing together law enforcement, child protective services, medical and mental health services, and victim advocacy. Its stated purpose is “to investigate abuse, hold offenders accountable and, most importantly, to help children heal from the trauma of abuse.”
Holbrook said the center’s environment is unlike the ones children usually encounter. “We are not a therapy office. We are not a doctor’s office. We are not an emergency room,” she said. “We are a one-stop-shop. We do one child at a time. Our philosophy is one child, one place, one time.”
The notebook was the idea of an intern looking for a project at the center about a year after its April 2010 opening. “She said, ‘How about if I make a book for kids?'” Holbrook recalled. “And we said, ‘Sure.’ So she made this and, wow, powerful.”
The notebook offers a variety of emotional expressions – some simple, some colorful, some reflections of relief and appreciation. A few children, especially the younger ones, just draw pictures or leave a page from a coloring book. One child drew a rendering of his elementary school, while others colored in hearts, butterflies, and even fish. There are several self-portraits in the notebook.
Some of the past victims offer sneak peeks at what lies ahead: “They won’t give you any shots.” Some provide their own reviews, especially regarding the center’s trove of toys and other diversions: “It was like paradise for me.” And others latch on to the goodness they encountered, such as the gifts of quilts contributed by volunteers: “The best part was picking out my own blanket.”
Mostly the children find their own ways to be a calming influence on others. “It is fun so don’t be sad or scared about it, but when you are done you are going to think it never happened,” wrote one contributor. “So if someone or something is messing with you, just count to ten or take a big breath. OK, so I came and was scared but went to it. So be like me, scared but not scared.”
Messages from the kids
Here are a few other examples of comments left by children and compiled in the notebooks at the Child Advocacy Center. (These excerpts are presented with only slight editing, mostly for spelling and punctuation.)
* Don’t be scared, people are nice here! When you walked in you were scared. I know, I felt the same way, but (they are) really nice and make you feel good about yourself! Everything will be OK, I promise. (Written in hearts) You will get through this.
* Being here is awesome. You shouldn’t be scared. Ms. Beth will ask you some questions. I liked it. I liked Ms. Lindsey. I liked my check-up. The doctor was nice. I love God.
* It is fun being here at CAC, and you don’t have to be scared. Mrs. Beth just talks to you and makes sure you are OK. Three things you need to know: 1) Relax!!! 2) It’ll be OK! 3) It’ll be over soon (smiley face). – Age 10
* When I got here, I was very nervous. But after talking to Ms. Beth, I felt better. She makes you feel welcomed and comfy. She is so amazing. She is loving and caring (smiley face). She listened to me and didn’t judge me.
* Everything is going to be OK. You can be honest with Ms. Beth and all the people here. If you are nervous like I was, take a deep breath and all you have to do is talk to them. They want to be your friends. But no matter what has happened to you, always remember you have a bright future ahead of you.
* … Once you get to know all these people, you will feel comfortable to talk to them. And you mean a lot to them. That’s why you are here because they care about you and you (can) trust them! You’re the star here and as soon as you leave, you will feel happy like them! They are nice. You get more comfortable the more you sit in this room.
* I love this place. It really helps get your emotions out. Sarah is a really fun person to be around. She likes to get to know you a little before you get into the real stuff. I am going through a tough situation right now and she made me feel a lot better about myself and my situation. When you first go in the room, you feel a little nervous, but before you know it, you’ll be talking her ear off. Hope you have a nice day. – Age 10.
An adult version
Parents and caregivers are surveyed at the end of the interview and evaluation process. As part of the survey, which is required by federal agencies that fund and oversee treatment centers, adults are provided a chance to leave personal comments to express their feelings about the experience.
In the spirit of the children’s notebooks, Child Advocacy Center staff have transcribed and compiled some of those comments in a separate binder to share with other parents and caregivers. “When they read that book, they realize we are not here to hurt them,” Holbrook said. “We are here to support them. They can talk openly and honestly. They can cry if they need to.”
Describing her take-away from the process, the caregiver of a pre-teen female wrote, “The staff explaining everything and showing my child prior to her interview and being honest about cameras and microphones. The binder of pictures and notes from other kids; it helped her to hear it from her peers.”
The caregiver of a pre-teen male wrote, “We appreciated having a clear understanding of what we are dealing with and how to move forward.”
Even faced with uncertainty, one adult still recognized the integrity and efforts of those who participated in the process. “They were amazing, ten thumbs up,” said the caretaker of a female under 5. “They didn’t do anything wrong. My child just didn’t disclose. The people here really care, which is a nice change.”
Elliott Potter is a communications consultant for One Place.