The east lawn of the Historic Franklin County Courthouse in Union is covered in blue and silver pinwheels, spinning in the spring wind and glinting in the bright sun.
Placed there early Monday morning by staff of the Children’s Advocacy Center of East Central Missouri (CACECM) in Sullivan, the pinwheels are a reminder to all passers-by that preventing child abuse and neglect is a community effort.
It’s part of a “Pinwheels for Prevention®” campaign spearheaded by Missouri Kids First, a statewide network of individuals, programs and organizations committed to protecting Missouri’s children by improving the response to child victims and ending the cycle of abuse in our communities, and cosponsored locally by the CACECM and Franklin County CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates).
The purpose of the campaign is to change the way Missourians think about prevention, focusing on community activities and public policies that prioritize prevention right from the start to make sure child abuse and neglect never occur.
“As the new symbol for child abuse prevention, the pinwheel represents hope, health and happiness — what we all desire for the children we know and love,” Missouri Kids First notes on its website.
The Children’s Advocacy Center of East Central Missouri and its educational program Kids’ Rights is a big part of that.
The mission of the CACECM is “to stop child abuse and protect children through a coordinated community-based response.”
What Is the CACECM?
The Children’s Advocacy Center of East Central Missouri, a division of Comtrea Inc., provides services for child victims of sexual/physical abuse and their families.
The specially trained staff conducts forensic (or fact-finding) interviews, provides family advocacy, participates in case reviews, provides medical examinations and mental health resources, and provides training and prevention for the community.
What this means for child victims is that they only have to tell their story twice — first to law enforcement or the children’s division, who collect the basic information of who, what, when, where; and second in more detail to the forensic interviewer at the CACECM office, where the interview is digitally recorded to minimize the need for redundant interviewing.
Prior to the CAC office opening in Franklin County, child victims of sexual abuse/domestic violence would have to tell their story in detail as many as 12 times and sometimes in environments that were not necessarily child-friendly, said Bob Parks, Franklin County prosecuting attorney who was one of the key proponents of opening the CACECM office in Sullivan back in May 2001.
Now, other professionals involved in the case who may have needed to interview the child victim can watch the recorded forensic interview, saving the child from being retraumatized with every retelling.
“Every time you talk to a child, it’s traumatizing,” said Parks. “For them, it’s bringing these events back to life.”
Plus, the CACECM office is designed to provide the child a “stress-free environment to talk.
“(It) allows children to speak and feel safe when they do it,” Parks said.
Jerri Sites, MA, who helped establish the CACECM in 1999 along with Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Robert G. Wilkins, said as a professional who has worked in the field of child abuse investigations for 20 years, handling cases with and without Children’s Advocacy Centers in place, the former is far better.
“Without the services of CAC, children are subjected to being interviewed in less desirable locations by professionals who may or may not have a great deal of knowledge of child development issues and little or no training in forensic interviewing,” said Sites.
“With the services of a CAC, children are interviewed in a safe, child-friendly location by professionals who have been trained in a nationally recognized forensic interview model and also understand child development and the effects of abuse/trauma on children and families.
“The difference is night and day,” she said.
A multidisciplinary team of professionals — law enforcement, social workers, juvenile officers, medical professionals, prosecutors and therapists — meet at the CACECM office to make group decisions about the investigation, treatment, management and prosecution of abuse cases.
The CACECM follows what it calls the Child First Doctrine, which says, “The child is our first priority. Not the needs of the family. Not the child’s ‘story.’ Not the evidence. Not the needs of the courts. Not the needs of police, child protection, attorneys, etc.”
Helping Hundreds of Kids Each Year
The CACECM has three offices — in Sullivan, De Soto and Farmington — that serve a 10-county region, including Crawford, Franklin, Gasconade, Iron, Jefferson, Madison, Osage, St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve and Washington counties.
Funding is provided by the Franklin County Community Resource Board, Franklin County Area United Way, grants and fund-raisers, like the Pinwheels for Prevention and the annual Sweetheart Dinner Dance held in February each year.
In 2009, the CACECM handled over 400 referrals, including over 150 at the Sullivan office. In 2010 there was an increase of approximately 25 percent.
In 2011, the three offices of CACECM saw 425 children, and in 2012, 436 children.
Child victims and their families are referred to the CACECM either by law enforcement or children’s division.
The Sullivan office is the busiest of the three CACECM locations, said Kelly Tesson, a family advocate who works out of the Farmington office.
“I think the Kids’ Rights (prevention program) stirs a lot of kids to talk,” said Tesson.
Currently, Kids’ Rights is only offered through the Sullivan office. It is funded through the Franklin County Community Resource Board.
Prevention Is Focus of Kids’ Rights Program
For the last couple of years, the CACECM has been offering a school-based prevention program, known as Kids’ Rights, both for sexual abuse prevention and for Internet safety. It is a community-based, comprehensive prevention program, reaching all populations who are affected by sexual abuse: children, parents and educators.
“Although this is a topic that can be controversial, we feel there is a great need for this education in our Franklin County schools,” said Wendy Poepsel, prevention specialist who leads the presentations in schools.
In this current school year alone, over 4,000 Franklin County children/students have been educated on Kids’ Rights.
“The primary focus of child sexual abuse prevention programs is to strengthen a child’s ability to recognize and resist assault,” said Poepsel. “The secondary objective is to encourage victims to disclose abuse and to improve adults’ responses to these disclosures so that children can receive early intervention and protection to reduce the negative consequences of sexual exploitation.”
Kids’ Rights focuses on preschool, kindergarten through fifth grade and seventh grade, allowing children to have age-appropriate information at various times during their lives and to have important messages reinforced so they are ingrained and more likely practiced, should the need arise.
“The younger children learn early about their rights and how to seek out help, while the seventh-graders learn skills to help them with both sexual abuse and sexual harassment as a period when many of them are entering puberty and dealing with opposite sex relationships for the first time,” said Poepsel.
Additionally, the Kids’ Rights program provides information to parents and educators, teaching them about warning signs and ways to listen and respond if a child or student comes to them to report an incident of abuse.
“By preparing parents and teachers, it is more likely that children and youth will be believed the first time they report, break through denial, allow for interventions to occur earlier, and thus, prevent the continuation of further sexual abuse,” Poepsel explained.
The presentation to students begins with a review of all the safety rules kids have been taught and introduces the “Touching Safety Rule” as another of those.
“This says that it’s not OK for anyone — an adult or another child — to look at or touch any of the private parts of someone’s body,” said Poepsel, noting she explains private parts by saying they are any part of the body that would be covered up by a swimming suit.
“Then we talk about what if someone tries to break this rule.”
That includes saying, “No,” finding a safe place to go and telling an adult whom they trust.
That last part can be tricky for children, said Poepsel, because 90 percent of the time, the abuser is someone that the child knows.
Something adults need to realize is that for child abuse victims, “disclosure is a process, not an event,” Poepsel remarked. “It can take a child awhile to open up.”
Many times, the Kids’ Rights program they hear at their school may spur them to do just that.
Preventing child abuse is a goal for the entire community to work toward because it affects everyone, directly or indirectly, said Poepsel.
“Child abuse can have devastating effects not only on the victim, but families and society as a whole,” she commented. “(CDC) studies show that the estimated annual costs for child maltreatment is $124 billion due to long-term effects such as depression, substance abuse, mental illness, criminal activity and loss of productivity to society, to name a few.
“We can protect our children and empower change through education. Prevention programs can help children recognize, resist, and report abuse which could be instrumental in breaking the cycle and creating healthier families and communities.”
What You Can Do to Help
There are a number of ways the community can help in the effort to prevent child abuse.
One way is by supporting CAC fund-raisers, like the Pinwheels for Prevention. Sponsorship forms for the pinwheels are available on the historic courthouse lawn in Union where they are placed or call the CAC at 573-468-2271.
Another way is by donating needed items featured on a “wish list” at the CACECM website (www.cacecm.org). It includes things like office supplies, books, crayons, coloring books, games and hand paint.
Finally, report it if you believe a child has been harmed. Call the Children’s Division Hotline at 1-800-392-3738 or your local law enforcement agency.