Marney Rich Keenan Wayne County’s Kids-TALK helping to fight child abuse
Marney Rich Keenan
For child and family therapists, the Penn State sexual abuse scandal was especially heartbreaking, says Laura Huot, director of children’s behavioral health at The Guidance Center in Southgate, “because we know it’s happening all over.”
And yet, as tragic as the victims’ suffering is, Huot sees a silver lining. “Sometimes it takes something like this to bring (sexual abuse) to the attention of the general population,” she says.
According to the National Children’s Alliance, one in every four girls and one in every six boys in this country are sexually abused before age 18. That means more than 112,000 of Wayne County’s children.
“It’s staggering to even imagine,” says Huot. “And we see it every day.”
How to combat such an entrenched and vicious foe? In January, thanks to the fortitude of several staff members at The Guidance Center, Kids-TALK Children’s Advocacy Center opened its doors, the first and only multi-agency of its kind in Wayne County. In a super-cozy, child-friendly house on Ferry Street in Midtown, representatives from law enforcement, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, children’s protective services, medical professionals, mental health professionals and child and family advocates all work together under one roof to coordinate the investigation, prosecution and treatment of child abuse cases.
Instead of telling a teacher at school, then repeating it to a principal, then to a caseworker, followed by an emergency room physician and, further, to a cop at the police station — each retelling an intimidating and humiliating experience for a child who has already been victimized — children come to Kids-TALK and tell their story once. And only once. To someone they trust.
Telling their story — once
Specially designed forensic interview rooms and observation rooms are equipped with closed circuit televisions, cameras and microphones. In the interview room, a trained forensic interviewer talks with a child, while in the observation room, police, a prosecuting attorney and a caseworker can feed questions or concerns they would like addressed into an earpiece worn by the interviewer.
“The beauty is that child has told their story, and they don’t have to tell it again,” says Alanna Coronado, forensic interview and advocate support specialist at Kids-TALK.
In addition, the child and family receive advocacy services, counseling, and — in the near future — medical treatment all under one roof for as long they need it.
As one of only a handful of major cities without a children’s advocacy center, Kids-TALK was long overdue, especially in light of the fact that as poverty rises, so do the numbers of neglect and abuse cases.
“It was with a sense of urgency that we needed to do this,” says Huot. “We kept hearing it’s not going to happen because of the economic climate, which made us even more determined to make it happen because of the economic climate.”
Still in the works is a medical facility in the renovated former carriage house out back and staffed by two Children’s Hospital of Michigan physicians specializing in traumatized children. The kids won’t have to be examined in the frightening setting of a chaotic emergency room, like they are now.
But as Al Sebastian, director of marketing and public relations likes to point out — especially to any potential private donors out there — they are still $70,000 short of completing the project. As such, there are no assurances the estimated 900 kids per year who should receive medical evaluations will actually get them.
And yet the kids just keep on coming. Last month alone, 104 came through these doors; that’s more two dozen kids a week. “It increases every month,” says Huot.
While 90 percent of Kids-TALK’s intake is sexual abuse cases, the program also sees severe physical abuse, severe neglect and witnesses to violent crime. “Detroit police, in particular, bring a lot of kids to us where they witness murder-suicide in the family or witness a shooting in the neighborhood,” says Coronado.
Reporting abuse urged
Ever mindful of the lessons of Penn State, Huot issues her own clarion call. “Before we can see children or help them, somebody has to report the abuse,” she says.
“People need to be diligent and suspicious of anybody who wants to spend an unusual amount of time with a child who is not their own. That may sound cynical, but it is true. Even if someone just suspects abuse and doesn’t have any hard evidence, they need to report it to the police or child services.
“Then we can get the children in here, find out what really happened, and maybe give these kids a real chance at leading productive lives.”