BELLEFONTE — A 7-year-old girl tells her teacher that someone touched her in a strange way. Alarmed, the teacher notifies authorities, such as Children and Youth Services, police and prosecutors.
The girl might feel uneasy talking to different authorities about the incident and scared because she’s in a police station, where some authorities may not have experience handling that type of case.
She may be asked to repeat herself, which could make her think the police officer doesn’t believe her.
The fear, trepidation and retelling of the incident in question are what local child advocates want to avoid by setting up a place designed to put children at ease during what are emotionally tough times. It would be a place where the child is interviewed one time
It’s called a child advocacy center, and the closest ones to Centre County are in Danville, Brookville and Harrisburg, all more than an hour drive from State College and Bellefonte.
Local officials here have been kicking around the idea for years, but they’re trying to build on calls for more ways to protect children in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse case.
“The overall goal of the center is to ensure that children will not be victimized again by the very system designed to protect them,” said county Judge Bradley P. Lunsford, the lead organizer.
From the police’s standpoint, the one-stop interview provides a better method of collecting evidence. It also speeds up the investigative process, organizers said.
From a prosecutor’s standpoint, the interview and evidence collected can bolster the court case. It can reduce claims by defendants that the person conducting the interview steered the child into an answer.
Right now, things are in the conceptual stage. The goal is to have a center operational in two years or less.
It would be for children who are suspected to have been sexually or physically abused. But it would also help children who are witnesses to crimes such as domestic violence.
“The goal is one interview, one place, one time,” said District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, who has been an advocate for a facility in Centre County since she was elected.
The child advocacy center would work like this:
•The child is taken to the center, where he or she is interviewed by a forensic interviewer, someone who is trained to handle such conversations with children.
No one else would be in the room.
•A police officer, prosecutor and caseworker would be in a different room, watching the interview. Some counties have the interview shown on a closed-circuit TV. Or they might be able to watch through one-way glass.
It’s a way “for people to be able to see the faces of the children as they are given the opportunity to tell what has happened to them,” said Pamela McCloskey, a psychologist and forensic interviewer whose practice is in Milesburg. “There is relief, they can make eye contact, their bodies relax as they talk and make statements like, ‘I’m so happy to get this yucky stuff out.’ ”
•An interview would be recorded so it could be shown to someone who isn’t able to watch the interview or to a defense attorney, or even shown during a trial.
Having a comfortable or relaxing environment for that first interview where children tell what happened to them is important, organizers said.
“A parent saying they’re going to take them to a police department, it’s kind of a scary thing,” said State College police Detective Chris Weaver, who is among the organizers.
After the forensic interview is completed, a child may need to undergo a medical exam that would be conducted by a medical professional.
Lunsford is looking to establish a board to oversee the center and eventually purchase a house where the center would be run. He is in the process of drafting bylaws and articles of incorporation.
Staffing would include an executive director and the forensic interviewer, whose job is what the concept of a child advocacy center is based around.
McCloskey said the goal of that interview is to get the most accurate information to make an assessment.
That doesn’t always mean there is abuse, as sometimes a forensic interview determines the allegation is something like a caregiver bathing a child or from something the child saw on TV.
“This will be more easily accomplished with a center with a well-trained staff working cooperatively with all of the professionals in Centre County who are involved in the protection of children and adolescents,” she said.
To get there, the organizers soon will start a fundraising campaign.
Lunsford said there’s state and federal grant money available.
All told, he thinks they’ll need $2 million to get things going.
As it is now, it could take weeks for a child to see a private physician for a medical exam, and abuse experts are located at medical centers outside Centre County, such as Geisinger Medical Center in Danville.
“Having to travel even a few hours is often difficult for the families, as well as the involved investigator agencies,” said Ferguson Township Police Chief Diane Conrad.
The Centre County group has looked to the child advocacy center in Gettysburg as a model. That one has been running since September 2005 and has helped more than 570 children.
The organizers here are enthusiastic about the prospect of such a center. It comes at a time when the Sandusky case has put immense scrutiny on the way children weren’t protected years ago, and organizers and advocates see it pressing forward as a big step.
Planning for the facility in Gettysburg began much the same way as the one in the works for Centre County. Child welfare advocates, including police, caseworkers, prosecutors and others in the community, wanted a better system for approaching children in abuse investigations or other instances in which they could be witnesses.
“When you hear children walk down the hall and say, ‘I love this place,’ you know that the system isn’t re-traumatizing them, and adults are caring and hearing them,” said Joddie Walker, executive director at the Gettysburg site.
Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT