Children's Cove - a resource
Sexual abuse of a child is in any parent's catalogue of worst nightmares. It often takes place in a situation that should be safe - a school, church, community center, or even at home. The abuser is frequently someone in a position of trust and authority, even a relative, whom the child would look to for protection and guidance. Sexual abuse may happen when parents or caretakers are not paying enough attention or supervising the child adequately. Yet it can just as easily occur when families keep a close watch and the level of discipline and communication is high.
"Even when you do everything right it can still take place," said Edgartown Police Detective Craig Edwards, who handles child sexual abuse cases for that town.
For a child, sexual abuse brings anguish, confusion, shame, and fear. A child feels he or she did something wrong or has been sworn to secrecy by the abuser and is afraid to tell. Especially if the perpetrator is a parent, family member, or someone else in a position of trust, the youngster struggles with confusion and conflict, unable to resolve feelings of betrayal, anger, and terror. Rather than speak, a child may find refuge in denial, and only acting-out behaviors or physical symptoms will offer a clue that something is amiss.
At Children's Cove in Barnstable, sensitive and specially trained professionals offer such young victims and their family members support. The center assists and advocates for sexually abused children throughout the law enforcement process or other investigations, and beyond.
The 10-year-old facility covers Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard, working with local law enforcement personnel when a case of child sexual abuse is reported. It works primarily with children between the ages of two and 17. Abuse can range all the way from enticing a child for sexual purposes, to inappropriate touching, to rape. Children's Cove's role is two-fold: to advocate for, protect, and help heal the child victim and the family, and to facilitate an accurate investigation, which is critical to the prosecution of a case.
Children's Cove is a safe haven in the storm of events and emotions of child sexual abuse. Set in the woods on secluded, county-owned property, the facility occupies a homey looking, two-story, shingled house. Rooms are bright and welcoming, with colorful artwork, comfortable furniture, baskets of toys. Outside there is a sunny deck, a perennial garden, and a playground. Perfectly designed to put frightened children and their families at ease, it is often called "child-friendly."
"You're not walking into a hospital or a district attorney's office," said director Stacy Gallagher. "People are comfortable here."
Children's Cove is a department of Barnstable County that partners with the Cape and Islands District Attorney's office, Massachusetts departments of Social Services and Department of Mental Health, and the Cape Cod Hospital. It is a free-standing child advocacy center, one of 11 in the state and dozens across the U.S. It also holds 501 C-3 non-profit status, enabling it to fundraise and receive donations to expand programs.
Because it contains all of its services under one roof including interviewing, medical examinations, and counseling, Children's Cove saves youngsters from the trauma of being questioned by many different people or going to a local hospital or clinic for evaluation. It also gives victims and families a reassuring sense of confidentiality, because interviews and examinations are conducted in a private setting by professionals who are not part of their own community.
"In the past, children were talked to eight, nine, ten times, it was very traumatic," says Ms. Gallagher, an articulate woman with boundless energy, a warm smile, and, like all her staff, a passionate dedication to children's welfare.
A Vineyard resource as well
Vineyard law enforcement officials work with Children's Cove when a case of child sexual abuse is reported. Island police rely on the facility to interview the young victims and to make sure the investigation is thorough and accurate.
Families are referred to the Barnstable facility, where a specially trained staff member interviews the child in a room designed for the purpose. The detective and/or DSS or other agency personnel involved in the case observe the interview either through a one-way mirror or on closed-circuit television and can suggest additional questions through an earpiece worn by the interviewer. Children are told that they are being observed.
"Nothing's hidden from them," says Ms. Gallagher. "We don't want them to distrust us as they did their abuser."
If the initial interview is not fruitful, the facility may conduct an extended forensic evaluation. In this case the child has several meetings with clinical director Tamara Hillard and eventually may disclose information about abuse. When this occurs, a second interview is held and the child, now more comfortable with the facility and staff, may disclose information.
Assistant District Attorney Laura Marshard has high regard for the work of Children's Cove. She says that the facility's expertly conducted interviews have often made it possible to prosecute a case and obtain a conviction.
"Interviewing children has an art and a science to it," said Ms. Marshard in a phone interview last week. "Children are vulnerable to leading questions. They may give an answer they think you want. A child may tend to agree instead of properly reporting what actually happened."
"The Cove staff has an expertise in interviewing these little people that police and most district attorneys just don't have," said Ms. Marshard. "It's critical that these children not be lead or suggested. Children's Cove staff are particularly adept and skillful at these interviews and aware of the pitfalls.
"Our district attorney's office encourages use of Children's Cove because it guarantees minimal trauma to the child victim."
Along with interviews, children receive specialized medical examinations when circumstances warrant, for example in an alleged rape. The small medical suite is bright and comfortable looking, appointed with a child-sized examination table, specialized exam equipment, and videotaping apparatus so that the process can be documented and used in court if necessary. Nurse practitioner Kathleen Ecker is specially trained as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE).
"Children's Cove can cover all the bases we need," said Ms. Marshard. "If these cases are investigated properly and thoroughly, the conviction rate goes up."
Ms. Marshard who has worked on the Vineyard for four years, said there is "a surprisingly high number" of sexual abuse cases here.
"People think this is an idyllic setting," she said. "But it's disturbing how many children are victimized here, often by people in a position of trust. It's sad and disturbing."
Law enforcement's view
"They're very dedicated, they're very professional," said Edgartown Police Detective Craig Edwards of Children's Cove staff. "It's really a fantastic program."
The facility is extremely accommodating to Vineyarders, he said, scheduling appointments immediately when a request comes in. Cove staff will also conduct interviews on the Island when necessary, and will help Vineyard families with travel costs. Detective Edwards, who is assigned to the Edgartown School, says he sees three or four cases of child sexual abuse a year in town and prefers to use Children's Cove for the anonymity it offers, rather than interviewing the child himself.
"Because I'm in that role, I don't want to meet with them," he explained. "If they see me walking down the hallway after that, their day is ruined. I'm in the school all the time, and it's a small Island too.
"Our main concern is the victim. We don't need to be traumatizing them daily. They don't need to be reminded of it when they go to school."
Detective Edwards said that feedback from families who have brought a child to the facility has been very positive. "Children's Cove has good after-care too," he said, referring to the counseling with Ms. Hilliard that victims receive following the investigation. "It takes a while; it's not something you just get over."
"It is a great resource for us," said Detective Mark Santon of the Tisbury Police Department in a phone interview yesterday. "Being on the Island, we use them a lot, and they're always available for us. Having the children go there instead of to the emergency room or police department is unbelievable. It's better for the parents and the child."
"Unfortunately, we got to know the staff well over the last few years," said Detective Santon, explaining that Tisbury has seen up to a dozen child sexual abuse cases annually. He said that even when an investigation is not underway, the facility's staff is very helpful to local police who are seeking information or "as a sounding board for some of the situations we come across."
He said that when circumstances make it impossible for interviews to be conducted on the Cape, SAIN (Sexual Abuse Intervention Network) Coordinator Lenny Fontes has traveled to the Vineyard with necessary audio-visual equipment. Island Counseling Center of Martha's Vineyard Community Services provides office space when needed in theses situations.
"He is amazing," said Detective Santon. "No matter the age there are no pointed questions. He is a fabulous forensic interviewer. He will come here at a moment's notice."
Detective Santon said the facility's ability to provide medical exams in child assault cases is extremely valuable. He said that although Martha's Vineyard Hospital is equipped to examine adult rape victims it does not have capability of providing a specialized exam for a pediatric sexual assault. This is particularly critical in cases involving very young children who may not be able to articulate the abuse clearly.
A Children's Cove investigation will sometimes prove that there has been no offense, exonerating the alleged perpetrator. This is another valuable service, Detective Santon said.
Using private donations and fundraising revenues, the facility's family program holds several recreational gatherings for clients, including ski trips, picnics, and a Christmas party. This program aims to allow the children and their parents to have a good time together, and experience that a warm family life is again possible.
Along with direct services to victims, Children's Cove works to raise awareness about child sexual abuse. In many ways, from trainings for school staff, students, and families to radio ads and community events. Their Speak Up campaign is part of an ongoing effort to encourage young victims to disclose their abuse. Every September the agency sponsors an information-packed two-day training on child sexual abuse for some 300 human service professionals, featuring expert speakers in the field.
Staff are available to talk with family or other community members in person or on the phone about identifying and handling child sexual abuse or explaining services.
Like everything about Children's Cove, its comprehensive website is reassuring and offers clear information. It explains the investigation process, offers statistics, legal data, describes interviews and medical exams, and even offers a section about how a parent can take care of him or herself during the crisis. Helpful to those already in the investigation process, the website is also an excellent tool for someone wanting to know how to identify child sexual abuse and what to do.
"People don't think this happens here, but it happens here as much as anywhere else," said Ms. Gallagher.
Statistics from the Cove's annual reports for the past three fiscal years show a total of 170 children interviewed for the fiscal year just ended, 126 for FY 2007, and 210 the year before.
Ms. Gallagher says regretfully that at times when figures drop, it may not mean that incidents of sexual abuse are declining, only that they are not being reported. She and her colleagues have no illusions that they will stamp out the behavior.
"Child sexual abuse is not going to stop," said Ms. Gallagher. "Getting kids to talk about it, getting services to them, making sure that families are provided with what they need and know that they have a safe place to go - this is my goal."
For more information, visit childrenscove.org, or call 508-375-0410 or toll-free 888-863-1900.