Child sexual abuse, as well as physical abuse and neglect are increasing in frequency and intensity, taking its toll on the youngest members of the community, according to statistics provided by the Ohio Network of Children's Advocacy Center.
In response, Fisher-Titus Medical Center and Huron County Job and Family Services partnered to create a new wing in the hospital, the Center for Hope and Healing — Advocacy for Children and Families.
"Locally in Huron County, we average 50 to 60 cases of child sexual abuse cases each year and that number is considerably higher for reported cases of abuse and neglect," JFS executive director Jill Nolan said.
Nolan said more than 900 sexual and/or abuse and neglect cases were investigated by her department last year, with 468 of those being substantiated.
In the one month that the Center for Hope and Healing has been open, it was used for nine cases, with victims ranging from too young to talk to age 17. Hospital officials expect a monthly average to be at least double that, once more people are made aware of the center.
“Sometimes the planets align,” said Lorna Strayer, Fisher-Titus president.
“We sat in one of our service meetings and heard from our physicians that it would sure be great if we could have a resource at Fisher-Titus to support children and families that have issues with child abuse. Then I got a call and they asked me, ‘Would you be interested in working on a child advocacy center with the county?’ and it was just the perfect day.”
Walking down the hallway connected to the emergency room, no one would guess the former one-room conference space was really a forensic interview room with a private physical examination room. The interview space is equipped with children’s books and toys, drawing and coloring utensils, small chairs and larger chairs, but overall is very simple, allowing the child to feel comfortable and as at-ease as possible.
The exam room looks like any other, with the exception of a couple pieces of equipment used in sexual abuse examinations and a TV in the corner near the exam table, placed there to help distract the victim as the physician assesses the damage from suspected abuse.
“We’ve always struggled with a safe and comfortable environment to conduct these interviews. and certainly the emergency room is not the place to do that,” said Dr. Glenn Trippe, one of the leading and directing physicians in the team that constructed the the center.
“Though the Attorney General’s office that provided the grants (two totaling $203,000) we were able to put a team together to that made this happen.”
The forensic interview room has subtly-placed cameras and equipment in the ceiling to allow the victim to have a sense of privacy and not have to go through the interview process more than once. On the other side of the cameras is a team of individuals, including other medical personnel, law enforcement, case workers and a prosecutor, who are watching in a conference room down the hall. Via earpieces, the law enforcement officers and prosecutors can privately ask the forensic interviewer to ask certain questions or have the child clarify a matter.
This makes the facility unique, according to Trippe and Renee King, Children Services administrator. In most other centers, the child must repeat the process or be exposed to multiple individuals, rather than just one.
In addition, some of the facilities were an hour or more away for Huron County families.
“If they needed any type of examination, we would have to make contact with another hospital and the families would have to take the children to Akron or Toledo so it just didn’t make sense for families in Huron County,” Nolan said.
Only one in eight child advocacy centers are hospital based in Ohio.
The primary goal of the child advocacy center is to reduce the additional trauma experienced by child victims, improve prosecutions and provide for more prompt and thorough provision of necessary services to the child and their families. The center also can reduce the duplication of services through their inter-agency collaboration and coordination, which Strayer describes as “wonderful” in Huron County.
“Our mission is to achieve healing and justice for children and families that are affected by abuse,” Strayer said.
The Center for Hope and Healing is a safe, neutral, child-friendly location where Huron County Protective Services investigators and law enforcement can conduct and observe forensic interviews with children who are alleged victims of crimes. The children and family members can receive support, crisis intervention and referrals for behavioral health and medical treatment.
Strayer and the team agreed the goal of the center was to provide “holistic care” — from the physical healing to the mental and emotional healing to aiding in receiving justice after experiencing horrific events. The multi-disciplinary team includes FTMC, JFS, Huron County Prosecutor’s Office, Huron County Victim’s Services, law enforcement and mental health professionals.
Anyone suspecting any kind of abuse of a child can report an incident anonymously in person, via mail or telephone at 419-663-5437 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at JFS, 185 Shady Lane Drive. The center will be accessible 24/7, at the discretion of the presiding physician to schedule the interviews and exams according the individual case and its urgency.