DILLSBORO -- Now when a child has a terrible truth to tell, there's a safe and supportive place to talk one on one with a trained individual in a single interview, points out the Children’s Advocacy Center of Southeastern Indiana, Dillsboro, website.

Between its opening Sept. 1, 2009, and the end of 2018, center staff have worked with 3,881 abused children, providing them with specialized forensic interviews, and their families with information about the investigative process and referrals to other services, according to statistics provided by executive director and forensic interviewer Stephanie Back.

The numbers of suspected abused and neglected children aided by CAC in its coverage area of eight counties over this time period: Dearborn, 1,037; Jefferson, 705; Jennings, 535; Decatur, 531; Ripley, 456; Switzerland, 228; Jackson, 133; and Ohio, 110. The center also helped 146 in 27 other counties in Indiana and other states, including 47 kids in Franklin.

After peaking at serving 515 kids in 2017, last year 481 came through the doors – more than one interview each day of the year.

Two-thirds of the victims were female. Almost 39 percent of youth were between 7-12; 36 percent between 0-6; and 25.2 percent between 13-17.

Many more were alleged victims of sexual abuse than any other kind, although a chart noted a victim could undergo multiple types of abuse. The numbers between 2009-18: sexual abuse, 3,068; witness to violence, 581; physical abuse, 489; neglect, 150; drug endangered, 95; and other, eight.

While most alleged offenders have been adults, 218 were under 13 and 319 were between 13-17.

Children with suspected abuse are taken to the Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center; Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, Indianapolis; or Norton Children’s Hospital, Louisville, Kentucky, for acute exams and evidence collection.

Some kids tell associate director and forensic interviewer Kelly Bridges there's something not right with their bodies because of what happened to them. "There's a school of thought every child might benefit (emotionally) from a medical exam" later to assure the parents and child his or her body is OK. "It's another step in the healing process."

"We're very close to starting a pilot program in Batesville at Children's Health Care," Back reports. Dr. Robert Shapiro, Child Abuse Team director at the Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children, will get licensed in Indiana so he can perform exams on abused children here once a month.

"We've been working with him almost a year. He's kind of passionate about it," Bridges says. The executive director adds, "This is an underserved region medically. It's overwhelming for families to go to cities." Shapiro can request funding from the Indiana Violent Crime Compensation Fund, administered by the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute.

The center's two child and family advocates will be liaisons between their families and Shapiro and bring back findings to the team.

Two more offices will bring services closer to families. CAC employees moved into a larger satellite office in Madison three months ago.

They just nabbed funding to open a Greensburg office, too, based on high Decatur County numbers. Decatur County will receive a $441,509 federal Community Development Block Grant to renovate a building to be a Children’s Advocacy Center, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch announced Jan. 17. The project will include the acquisition of a building and renovations.

Children are referred to the center by the Indiana Department of Child Services and law enforcement agencies, according to Back. She figures in 2017 "probably about 20 percent of our caseload was same day or emergency type appointments because of the circumstances. "We really need to get them in sooner rather than later."

Bridges elaborated, "We like to get a child 3 or 4 in as soon as possible due to recollection ... or the perpetrator is still in the home."

When a family arrives, usually an advocate gets them settled and helps them understand what's going to happen. There are consent forms and more paperwork to sign. The kids play and get used to the environment. The executive director explains, "One of us is downstairs with the multidisciplinary team (perhaps a prosecutor, IDCS assessor and police officer) getting information about the case," then the child is escorted to the interview room.

As the forensic interviewer asks questions and the child answers, the team is in another room, listening and taking notes.

Board President Tom Baxter, a center founder, points out, "CAC interviews are recorded, and that allows for a review of interviews without subjecting the children to multiple interviews. The interviews are conducted by a forensically trained interviewer" so each conservation "is proper and likely to be less scrutinized by anyone that may object to a disclosure."

"We take a break three quarters of the way through," according to Back. The child stays in the room while the interviewer talks with the team to see if there are any followup questions. The final question is usually "Is there anything else you want to tell me?" Answers could lead to learning about more incidents and suspects.

The longest interview has taken three hours, but most average 30-60 minutes, Back says. If the child is reluctant to talk or doesn’t seem ready, the interview will happen in steps over a week or so.

Officers "might learn something really valuable in the interview" that advances the case, Bridges notes. If a kid mentions photos were taken, for instance, a search warrant could be prepared.

With more knowledge about an incident or continuing crime, police "like to have an element of surprise" when questioning suspects.

While videos used to be routinely shown to juries, a recent law mandated they can only be used in special circumstances. A defendant has a constitutional right to confront a witness, even if it's a child. Sometimes a prosecutor can convince a judge it will be too hard on the youth to testify.

Bridges reports, "Many times the video is used to encourage a plea deal so the child doesn't have to."

In some cases, after one kid in a family is interviewed, more children will be to either confirm a crime or determine if more siblings have been abused.

After the interview, an advocate meets with the caregiver to answer questions, assist with referrals and provide a well-rounded approach. The advocate follows up in the days and weeks afterward.

Bridges says abuse has "such a ripple effect for the whole family. It's important to take care of everyone in the family." Sometimes, "it's a parent who just found out her spouse was the alleged perpetrator."

Ever since the center opened, the staff has found funding to travel to the annual Crimes Against Children Conference, most recently in Dallas in August, recalls Back. Bridges gives two reasons why the conference is important. They learn best practices. "The field is constantly changing. Learning new things from national speakers is just vital. We're seeing a lot more digital abuse through social media and computers. Staying up to date on all that stuff kids are exposed to – online predators ... is very eye opening." The trip also provides a team bonding experience. "Traveling and learning together is really important. We really have to rely on one another in this field to get the job done ... (When) you know that person a little better, it makes communication a lot better."

Recent workshop topics ranged from pet therapy ("We were hoping to add that at some point," according to Bridges) to gentle strangulation. "To know what to ask is important," she points out. Prosecutors who attended were informed on how to better use forensic interviewers in court.

While the board used to be made up primarily of prosecutors, now regular folks have been added: President Tom Baxter, Indiana State Police Versailles District sergeant and investigations squad leader; Vice President Chad Lewis, Madison, Edward Jones financial adviser; Secretary Monica Hensley, Vevay, Switzerland County prosecutor; Treasurer Chris Meyer, Cross Plains, Friendship State Bank CEO; members Ric Hertel, Batesville, Ripley County prosecutor; and Drew Young, Greensburg, attorney; emeritus member Aaron Negangard, Indianapolis, Indiana attorney general deputy.

The president says, "Credit should be given where it is due. The staff does an excellent job at maintaining day-to-day services. In addition, staff membership has increased (from three to five by adding a forensic interviewer and advocate) due to efforts by the leadership. The board obviously is in agreement with these changes."

"Child abuse is still an issue," Back concludes. "It's still prevalent. Not just us, but the team (law enforcement, IDCS, mental health specialists) are still trying to fight the battle, so to speak. There are such ripple effects if we don't handle these cases the best that we can so the child, family, even the perpetrator can get the treatment they need to heal."

Without treatment, victims sometimes turn to drugs and alcohol or become mentally unstable.

Debbie Blank can be contacted at debbie.blank@batesvilleheraldtribune.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.

How to safeguard children from abuse

"A true perpetrator is so savvy in manipulation that a child is never going to be a match with that adult," Bridges believes.

Back has talked to an expert who treats sex offenders. "In her opinion, there is no fix for people who are true perpetrators. The only thing we can do is basically lessen the risk." Part of the person's treatment is bringing in a circle of family and friends and telling them, "It is part of your responsibility to protect the community ... It's your job to step in" so kids aren't alone around an offender.

The focus of child abuse prevention could be to educate adults instead of children.

First in a two-part series

Part 2: How the Children's Advocacy Center is funded, Jan. 22