LEESBURG – A little girl sat at kid-sized table, crayons by her side, a fish tank and a TV playing an animated movie in front of her.
“It looks like a house,” some children exclaim as they walk in the front door.
The Children’s Advocacy Center, however, is not a home. It is a house of pain, but more importantly, it’s a house of healing.
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‘Never give up’:Children’s Advocacy Center helps heal abuse, neglect victims
The nonprofit is on the front line in the war against neglect and abuse, working shoulder-to-shoulder with law enforcement, child welfare services and others — and their expertise is crucial.
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Small counties like Lake and Sumter see ‘a lot’ of cases
Besides providing forensic interviews in crime investigations, CAC provides medical exams, counseling, and child protective team assessments.
“We get about 1,000 cases per year in Lake and Sumter counties,” said Brenda Crellen, the executive director of various types of abuse cases.
“You think we live in small counties,” she said. “But that’s a lot.”
Last year’s COVID-19 shutdown, which isolated families, led to an increase of domestic violence, substance abuse and people watching adult entertainment on cable and clicking onto pornographic sites.
Now, there’s a new threat: Human trafficking.
“We get a lot of that from people who come here from Orlando,” said Holly Sharlow, child protective team coordinator.
The stories they hear and the evidence they help collect are sickening and infuriating. The children range in age from infants to youth who are just shy of 18.
But the key is having trained forensic interviewers like Sharlow.
“We enter the room as if we have no information,” she said.
Questions are carefully worded. They are not leading, and they are as neutral as possible. Even the interview rooms, with hidden cameras, are carefully designed.
“These pictures are not fantasy,” Sharlow said, touching a painting on the wall of a soft-colored seahorse.
Space for healing: ‘Never give up’
To get the victims to open up and tell their stories, there is a playroom with a sandbox and toys, and there is an art therapy room for counseling.
Out of sight in a conference room, prosecutors, law enforcement, or social workers with the Department of Children and Families watch interviews on a big screen while they are being recorded.
At some point, the interviewer calls for a break and meets with the officials to see if she needs to begin another line of questioning.
Sometimes children disclose abuse during mental health counseling or medical exams.
Forensic interviewing came into being about 40 years ago after controversial cases blew up in investigators’ faces. There were cases where day care centers were being accused of abuse, but children were interviewed together, asked leading questions, and heard parents and officials talking, for example. “It tainted the cases,” Sharlow said.
“We’re proud of our work here,” Crellen said.
“It’s all free. Where else can you get those kinds of things for free. Usually, it’s based on insurance or payment on a sliding scale or something. That’s why we depend on grants and donations.”
Not only is it free, but it’s convenient, with child protective interviews and counseling under the same roof. Healing can begin right away.
One of the most uplifting things are two posters in the art therapy room created by children with words of encouragement for future visitors.
“Never give up,” one child wrote.
“It’s just part of your story,” one child noted.
“Birds don’t sing because they have an answer, but because they have a song,” yet another wrote.
2020 Children’s Advocacy Center Statistics
Types of service
Medical exams: 578
Counseling sessions: 3,455
CPT assessments: 788
6 and younger: 286
Types of abuse
Witness to violence: 74