MIAMI – The new Child Advocacy Center (CAC) of Ottawa County is open in Miami in its new building at 111 B Street SE, across the corner from the Sheriff’s Office.
The CAC, which handles all child abuse and neglect cases, was previously housed in an older repurposed house on 23 B Street SE.
The CAC now has forensic interviewing abilities, a medical exam room where exams can be conducted without having to take a child to the emergency room, its own courtroom and office space so that everything can be done in one place.
CAC Director Leslie Bissell also works as a detective with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office, and Christina Spriggs serves as a Forensic Interviewer and Child Advocate.
The new location will continue to provide a multidisciplinary team representing law enforcement, child protection, prosecution, mental health, and medical and victim advocacy to serve children. The CAC staff works to minimize the trauma during investigation and prosecution.
“Basically having the new facility we are at now allows us to do everything here at the one building,” Bissell said. “Where we were at before was really small and, in fact, whenever we were going to do an interview we had to turn the heat or air off because it was so small you couldn’t hear with them running. Here everything is one place.
“One room serves as a courtroom with closed circuit television where a judge can just watch. The exam room is key because the children don’t have to go to the emergency room and announce to the world that they are victims of molestation. We have so much more space and everything is new and clean and smells good.”
In 2018, the CAC served on 157 child abuse and neglect cases. Statistics show that approximately a quarter of such cases result in criminal charges and prosecution.
Also according to statistics, 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 without intervention and prosecution.
Prosecution depends on evidence, the age of the victim, and their ability and willingness to talk about the abuse.
“Another important thing with this new building being such a cleaner and brighter facility is that the kids feel more comfortable here and at home,” Spriggs said. “I have kids ask me sometimes if this is my house and I have to explain that I only work here.
“The kids come inside and go straight to the toys and they feel more comfortable, so when they go into the interview room they don’t think it’s scary like our other building with its creaky floorboards. That has been great for doing interviews because the kids are much more comfortable.”
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 then text any questions to the interviewer.
The goal is for the child to only be interviewed once. With this process, the child doesn’t have to keep talking about the abuse or relive the traumatic event and, if needed, can be referred for counseling.
A courtroom setting in the new facility allows the child to be interviewed and to testify via closed-circuit video to avoid additional trauma.
While defendants have a right to face their accuser, many times judges will allow the child to remain at the CAC and be questioned via video, or allow Spriggs to be present if the child does have to face his or her perpetrator again.
In-house forensic medical exams are vital to investigation and prosecution, and the CAC’s goal is to create the least traumatic experience possible.
Dr. Alan Carnahan, a pediatrician with Integris Miami, conducts the exams.
“These kids come in here and go right to the toys, even though they have all these things in their heads they are thinking about and are expected to talk about someone having touched them or beat them,” Bissell said. “They play with the toys then they go with Christina to the interview room and then, like the brave little soldiers that they are, tell all about the things that just happened to them. Then they come right back out and go back to playing. They are resilient. A lot of people don’t get to see that.
“We have a play kitchen that goes back to the 1980’s and all the kids just love it. It has play food and dishes and cups and there was one little girl that, before she would go back for her interview, had to make me a plate of food and stir my ‘tea,’ then she went back to do her interview and talk about whatever happened to her and then came back out. They really are so resilient.
“This place definitely makes it easier on the kids. I can’t imagine having to go into some scary office setting. That’s why CAC buildings like this new one are ideal,” Bissell added.
The CAC Board members are chairman Dr. Rene Galan, vice chairman Alan Carnahan, secretary Cale Ritter, treasurer Elaine Clugston, and James Pickens.
The CAC is a non-profit 501 C3 accredited through the National Children’s Alliance. It also receives funding through the United Way.
Shyers Construction built the new CAC building and still does maintenance on it when needed.
The 10 lots the building sits on were previously given to the CAC by the Ottawa County Commissioners.
Although half of the new building’s mortgage has been paid to date, the CAC is still in need of donations to meet monthly expenses.
For more information or to make a donation, call the CAC at 918-540-1621 or visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/CACOttawaCounty/