Children’s advocacy center plans to expand

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — In the past year, the child protective services unit of the Wake County Department of Social Services, as well as the Wake County Sheriff’s Office and local police departments in the county, submitted 237 requests to SAFEchild’s new Children’s Advocacy Center to conduct medical evaluations of children who had been sexually or physically abused.

The center, which opened in October 2010, handled 97 of those cases.

Part of a growing network of children’s advocacy centers throughout the state, and the only one in Wake County, the SAFEchild program uses a multi-disciplinary-team approach to assist local agencies that investigate, prosecute and treat abuse.

Before the center opened, a child in Wake County who was sexually or physically abused would have to navigate, “while in trauma and crisis, a very complicated system” of agencies and professionals, says Cristin DeRonja, the center’s director.

“And these kids were being re-traumatized over and over again by having to retell their story,” she says. “There wasn’t a coordinated, streamlined approach to these investigations.”

Before the center opened, scheduling an evaluation could take well over a month, compared to 10 to 14 business days at SAFEchild’s center.

And kids and their families, as well as professionals involved in the evaluations, had to make visits, sometimes more than once, to WakeMed, the only location in Raleigh where evaluations were conducted, or to Duke Medical Center in Durham, UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, or University Health Systems in Greenville.

The new center operates with annual operating costs of $322,000, or nearly 29 percent of SAFEchild’s annual budget, and a staff of three employees plus two part-time medical practitioners, one of them representing an in-kind donation from WakeMed, the other under contract.

Grants cover 53 percent of the costs of operating the center, with donations and fundraising covering another 24 percent and insurance reimbursements covering for 23 percent.

The medical evaluation consists of an interview, medical examination, multi-disciplinary review of the case, and advocacy support and services.

Participating in the review are the center and its collaborating partners, including the Wake district attorney’s office, Wake child protective services, sheriff’s office and police, medical professionals, mental-health providers, and Wake County public schools.

“No one professional knows every single thing about what needs to happen in these investigations,” DeRonja says, “and we need to work together as a team to provide the best outcomes for the healing of the child, but also the best outcomes for the prosecution of the offenders to keep the child safe and our community safe.”

The interview and medical exam alone take two to three hours, and the interview is conducted by a center staff member, digitally recorded, and observed live on a monitor in a different room by the referring professionals.

With its current staffing, the center can see three to five children a week, or a maximum of 20 a month, compared to 10 to 12 a week it could see if it had a full team of medical professionals, DeRonja says.

To add a full-time medical practitioner for the center, SAFEchild has launched a campaign to raise $200,000.

Chaired by Geoff Miller, owner of Professional Recovery Inc., the campaign raised nearly $120,000 at a luncheon Oct. 6.

A key goal for the center, DeRonja says, is to “increase our capacity to see more kids and get them in sooner.”

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