Once completed the new location will continue to provide a multidisciplinary team representing law enforcement, child protection, prosecution, mental health, medical and victim advocacy to serve children in abuse cases.

MIAMI – When they are frightened, hurt, feel overwhelmed or alone children need a place to go that will surround them with care, compassion and support. On Wednesday ground was broken to begin the construction of such a place, the new Child Advocacy Center (CAC) of Ottawa County.

The new facility is expected to be completed by October of 2018 and will give a new home to the CAC which is currently housed in an older repurposed residential house on 23 B Street SE in Miami.

The new center being built just down the street at 113 B Street SE across the corner from the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office provides help to children who are victims of abuse.

“We hope for everything in-house,” CAC Director Leslie Bissell said. We have forensic interviewing now, but we will have a medical exam room where we can do exams and won't have to go to the ER, we're going to have our own courtroom, and office space. That way everything can be done right in one place.”

Bissell also works as an investigator for the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office and Patience Espinosa, serves as Forensic Interviewer/Child Advocate at CAC.

“It's just the two of us and we hope to expand when we get some more money coming in and get moved,” Bissell said. “We handle all the child abuse and sex crimes in Ottawa County.”

Once completed the new location will continue to provide a multidisciplinary team representing law enforcement, child protection, prosecution, mental health, medical and victim advocacy to serve children in abuse cases.

“Every Friday at noon we meet here for Multidisciplinary Task Force (MDT), Patience and I, DHS, the DA's Office, our counselors, MPD Detective Aaron Crocket, and Dr. Alan Carnahan, and together all of the current cases that occur in Ottawa County are staffed,” Bissell said.

The CAC staff works to minimize the trauma of child abuse victims during investigation and prosecution and to meet the needs of the child during this time.

Last year the CAC served 141 child abuse and neglect cases, and approximately a quarter of those cases result in criminal charges and possible prosecution when warranted.

“This year it's going to be a lot higher. A lot of it has to do with more school breaks and holidays this year, that's not the fault of teachers, that's on parents,” Bissell said.

Bissell and Espinosa stressed the importance of listening to children and reporting child abuse.

“If a child is being abused or neglected you are responsible to report it,” Bissell said. “We want to provide resources and fix the problem.”

Bissell and Espinosa said many times the sexual perpetrator is a family member or trusted friend or caregiver, and 80 percent of perpetrators have molested before and will continue to re-offend until intervention and prosecution.

“Most abusers are someone the victim knows,” Espinosa said. “Out of the stats of 141, only four were strangers, so they are people that they trust.”

Prosecution depends on evidence, the age of the victim and their ability and willingness to talk about their abuse, according to Espinosa.

Bissell explained what happens when a child is brought to CAC, she said, “We will get a police report going and make referrals to DHS. We will then do a forensic interview and then from there it will be determined if it's a matter DHS can handle and take care of, or if it's prosecutable.”

The child forensic interviews are video and audio recorded and transmitted live to a computer where law enforcement and the DHS caseworker can watch, and text any questions to the interviewer.

“It works really well,” Bissell said. “The goal is for the child to only have to be interviewed one time. No more talking about it.”

Bissell said with this process the child doesn't have to keep talking about the abuse or have to relive the traumatic event.

If needed, the child can be referred for counseling with two counselors Lori Kurtz and Jennie Allen.

A courtroom setting in the new facility will allow the child to be interviewed and testify by closed-circuit video to avoid the need and unnecessary additional trauma of bringing the child into an unfamiliar courtroom.

“They can do everything right here,” Bissell said.

She explained defendants do have a right to face their accuser but many times the Judges will allow the child to remain at the CAC and be questioned via video, or allow Espinosa to be present to help the child face his or her perpetrator.

In-house forensic medical exams are vital to investigation and prosecution and creating the least traumatic experience as possible is the goal of CAC. The facility will provide a better experience for children who must be subjected to such exams.

“You have to wait for hours in the waiting room sometimes,” Patience said.

Integris Pediatrician Dr. Alan Carnahan and three certified SANE nurses will be undergoing pediatric SANE training and provide exams when necessary. The training will be funded by DCSAN and CAC.

CAC Board members are Chairman Dr. Rene Galan, Vice Chairman Alan Carnahan, Secretary Cale Ritter, Treasurer Elaine Clugston, Ben Loring and James Pickens.

“A new building has been in talks for years and we finally got where we feel comfortable doing it, so we’re doing it,” Bissell said.

The Children's Advocacy Center is a non-profit 501 C3 and is accredited through the National Children's Alliance.

“We have a great working relationship with Sheriff Floyd. Work through the Sheriff's Office and then we reimburse them,” Bissell said. “Inmate crews mow our grass, do maintenance and will help us move.”

The new facility was bid for construction, and although lower bids were received, Shyers Construction was awarded the bid at $302,000, of which presently about half of the construction project has been funded.

“We have private money through donations that we have saved over the years to build, and we are still looking for more donations,” Bissell said. “We'll have some fundraisers probably. The Ottawa County Commissioners were nice enough to give us these 10 lots for the building.”

CAC also receives funding through the United Way.

“We will be needing to furnish the office, and plan to build a playground,” Bissell said. “When we get moved in we will set up new play areas and we welcome new toys and stuffed animals.”

Monetary donations can be made by calling the CAC at 918-540-1621 or through their Facebook page, Child Advocacy Center of Ottawa County.

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at mstotts@miaminewsrecord.com or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.