Children’s Advocacy Center will open next fall at RAPE Treatment Center
Last week, Harrison County Prosecutor Dennis Byrd, deputy prosecuting attorney Susan Orth, police officers Delana Smith, Anthony Mills, Joe Squier and Josh Banet, and Theresa Kerberg of Child Protective Services went to Indianapolis to learn how to talk to children.
They were accompanied by their counterparts in Crawford and Orange counties ‘ 17 in all.
They went to a workshop that focused on interviewing and treating children who have been abused, usually sexually abused.
The seminar, put on by an organization called ‘Finding Words Indiana,’ is designed to train an interdisciplinary team of local officials to investigate child abuse charges, interview the victim in a healthy, supportive, child-friendly atmosphere, and do whatever is best for the child.
Lola Ratterman, R.N., of New Salisbury, the executive director of the RAPE Treatment Center in Milltown, obtained grants for the ‘Finding Words’ training from the Harrison County Community Foundation, the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana in New Albany, and the National Children’s Alliance. The NCA provided a $50,000 grant for the team training and to establish a Children’s Advocacy Center at the RAPE Treatment Office in Millltown.
The idea for the advocacy center started when the RAPE Treatment Center started taking child abuse cases.
Ratterman said the first year they had 10 cases, all adult females. In the second year, from March 2003 to March of this year, there were 81 cases, and 76 were children ‘ all victims of sexual abuse. Seventy of the 76 are girls. None of the 76 cases involved the stereotypical ‘stranger in the trench coat who jumps out of the bushes.’ All the victims knew their alleged attackers.
‘We knew we had to get more training,’ Ratterman said. After Ratterman obtained the $50,000 in grants, a third team was formed to attend the ‘Finding Words’ program. It followed two teams from this area who went to Fort Wayne for training in October of 2002 and April of 2003.
A child advocacy team has already been formed. Ten members have been meeting since January at the Harrison County Juctice Center in Corydon.
Starting next fall, Ratterman said, abused children will be seen in the CAC, now being constructed in a former apartment in the same building in which the RAPE Treatment Center is located in Milltown.
The CAC will have an interview room, a forensic medical examination room with specific equipment, a conference room, waiting rooms for various age groups, play areas, a kitchen, handicapped accessible bathroom with shower, conference room, and a resource room for the officials.
The CAC will serve Harrison, Crawford and Orange counties, although Perry, Spencer and Dubois counties are now interested.
When child abuse cases came up in the past, Ratterman said, various agencies got involved. A representative of each agency conducted his or her own interview with the alleged victim to get the information they needed but they didn’t always share it. A child ‘ presuming he or she would talk ‘ would be interviewed several times by different people, some in uniform, which often intimidates young children.
‘When they’re asked the same questions, a child gets an idea of what’s the ‘best’ answer or what she thinks the interviewer wants to hear,’ Ratterman said. ‘Kids disclose as they feel safe. As they feel safe, they tell more, they add details. They don’t change their story. More comes out in counseling, too.’
The ‘Finding Words’ seminar teaches interviewers how to talk on a child’s level, how to phrase questions, use anatomically correct dolls, watch body language, and role-play with actors. And the officials learned the importance of working together in the best interests of the child, Ratterman said.
Now, one official (usually a police officer or someone from Child Protective Services) interviews the victim as other members of the team watch out of sight on closed circuit TV. Using a two-way radio, they can prompt the interviewer to ask certain questions.
‘Getting everyone together at the same time can be a challenge,’ Ratterman said.
‘We (adults) tend to talk to children as little adults, but they’re not. The training teaches techniques to use to talk with kids,’ Ratterman said. For example, asking a small child how many times someone touched them (inappropriately), may be fruitless because some kids haven’t learned to count yet.
Words have different meanings to children. The word ‘charge’ to one child might refer to something bad, but to another it has something to do with a credit card.
(Former Harrison County deputy prosecutor Cheryl Hillenburg tells the story of one child who went through the court system thinking the word allegation meant alligator.)
Harrison County police officer Bryan Byrne, who was part of the second team that went to Fort Wayne, said the ‘Finding Words’ program made him a better interviewer. He said it taught him how to ask specific questions and allow victims to talk without ‘leading them on.’ The total effort is aimed at what is best for the child, not what’s best for the police, prosecutor or court system, he said.
‘It’s a good class. I wanted to go back and take it again,’ Byrne said. He’s taken many training classes in his nine-year police career, and ‘This is the best class I’ve ever been to,’ he said.
If a child needs a physical exam, that can be done at the CAC, too. If they’re injured, they will be taken to the hospital. If they need counseling, they will be referred to various agencies, like Southern Hills in Crawford County or Brandon’s House or Counsel House in Harrison County.
Ratterman said the FBI estimates that only 20 percent of all sexual abuse cases are reported. So, if 80 cases were reported to the RAPE Treatment Center last year, 400 were not in the three-county area.
Typically, victims don’t want to report cases because they think no one will believe them, Ratterman said. They’re often afraid that if they do tell, something terrible will happen to them, or the attacker, who is often a member of the family, a friend or neighbor, or the child will be removed from the home. So they keep quiet.
‘A lot of victims bury the abuse inside them and don’t want to deal with it. It haunts them throughout their adult life,’ Ratterman said.
‘People think it doesn’t happen, or they think it doesn’t happen in their community, but it does,’ Ratterman said. ‘Most people think they wouldn’t recognize a rapist or a child abuser, but they probably know one. You just don’t know he’s an abuser. It could be a father, brother, uncle, cousin, a neighbor, people down the street.’
So far, Ratterman hasn’t had any child cases in which the victims don’t know the abuser.
Ironically, often the abuser was himself abused as a child. Often, parents of the victim were abused, usually the mother.
‘It’s a cycle we keep passing on,’ Ratterman said. ‘People tell me everyday, ‘I wish you had been here years ago, when this was going on.’ ‘
Ratterman said the CAC ‘will be a place that believes the victim, and that means a lot. We’re a safe place, and we believe what they tell us.
‘The key to unlocking children’s secrets lies not in improving children’s memory but in improving the skills of the adults who talk to the children.’
Ratterman, 50, a nurse for 30 years, said the ‘Finding Words’ program will make a big difference. ‘It’s made a big difference in Harrison County already. Having these interview skills enables them to get better information from the children without traumatizing the children.’
The only other CAC in Southern Indiana is Amy’s House in Clarksville, but it has no in-house medical component.
Officials from Crawford County who went to the Finding Words training are: Prosecutor Jim Montgomery, police officers Phil Stowers, Mark Bye and Denise Gianfala, and Ginger Breeden of the Office of Family and Children. From Orange County: Prosecutor Kelly Minton, Officers Matt Powell and Dana Miller, Harriet Hale of the Division of Family and Children, and Sarah Whiteman, a nurse.
If you are raped or assaulted …
If you have been assaulted or raped, don’t go to the hospital. Call toll-free 1-866-771-7273. The call will go to the Harrison County Sheriff’s Dept. dispatch office, which will contact one of three specially trained nurses on call. The nurse will call the victim and arrangements will be made to meet the victim at the center.