Advocacy Center kicks off Child Abuse Awareness Month

By Megan R. Harrell
Star Staff

Members of the community gathered at the Child Advocacy Center for the First Judicial District, 201 Myrtle Ave., Johnson City, Monday to observe the first day of National Child Abuse Awareness Month. Local law enforcement officials, judges, and members of the medical and educational communities attended the ceremony on the steps of the center where donations on behalf of abused children were received.
   The local spotlight on child abuse is in response to a national crisis. Johnson City Mayor Duffie Jones stated in her proclamation of April as Child Abuse Awareness Month, that approximately three million children are reported abused or neglected in the U.S. each year. Jones added 5,914 were reported to be sexually abused in the state of Tennessee in 1999, and 766 of that total were in the First Judicial District.
   The proclamation also stated that Johnson, Carter, Washington and Unicoi counties would utilize the CAC for the benefit of the children in their area. "One of the first things I got to do after I got elected was to rename the CAC because they were going to call it the Children's Advocacy Center for Washington County," District Attorney General Joe Crumley said. "I told them if I was going to support it, that it had to be for the whole district, so they renamed it and we are trying to get all of the different agencies to use the CAC."
   The CAC takes in children solely on the basis of referral. It works directly with Police Child Protective Services from each of the counties in the First Judicial District. "We get a lot of children from Carter, but our biggest user is Washington, and we see quite a bit from Unicoi as well," said Terri Knapp, Executive Director of the CAC.
   Knapp received a check in the amount of $15,000 from the Junior League underneath an arch of 182 balloons representing the number of children that were serviced at the CAC last year. The Junior League donated the original $25,000 which helped to start the CAC.
   The Bristol Motor Speedway is also actively involved with the center. It provides the funding for the two counselors who work at the CAC two days during each week.
   The medical and educational communities have stepped up to the plate on behalf of abused children. Mountain States Health Alliance donated the building for the center when it was established three years ago. The medical auxiliary announced that it will be providing innovative medical equipment so that children can be examined at the location. "In the past the children have had to go to the jail or the hospital to be examined, which are horrible places for an adult much less a child," said Vicki Hinton, Victim Services Coordinator. "Now they will be able to tell their story in just one place and it will be much less traumatic for the child." Exam rooms will be constructed at the facility in the near future.
   Sam Bailey, representing the Health Occupation Students of America at Science Hill High School, donated several stuffed animals to the CAC. "We were told that every child that comes into the CAC receives a stuffed animal to take with them, so we took up an offering and collected several," Bailey said.
   The community has worked hard to make the CAC for the First District as comfortable as possible for children. A playground has been installed at the center that has been transformed into a medieval castle. Counselors have the ability to record as many as six different locations inside the center which allows them to establish concrete testimonial evidence. "You have an interview room where you can tape both the child and the interviewer so they can't claim that somebody is trying to lead the child by hand motion or by facial expressions," D.A. Crumley said.
   As the Victim Service Coordinator, Hinton believes that the awareness events help to educate the public and benefit local children. "Our referrals always go up after April, because this increases awareness of child abuse," Hinton said. "A lot of kids do not know that what is happening to them is not normal."
   Administrators at the CAC hope the public outpouring of support for the program will help to extinguish child abuse in the region. "Basically this event was to make the community aware of the fact that April is Child Abuse Awareness month," Director Knapp said. "We are here and we are needed."
   (Editor's Note: Star reporter Kathy Helms-Hughes contributed to this story).