'Child-friendly' center opens for abuse cases

September 30, 1992|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

County victims of child sexual abuse used to have to go to the Department of Social Services for an interview and then to the Police Department for a second one and eventually to Baltimore for a medical examination.

At each stop, children would deal with new people in cold, institutional settings. Youngsters already traumatized were often traumatized further.

But yesterday, Anne Arundel County officially opened a new Child Advocacy Center, a joint effort between the county's social services and police departments, where child abuse cases can be handled in a single setting.

"We're trying to put the child at ease," said David Ladd, assistant director for child protective services. "Children are often reluctant to talk about abuse. Older children are embarrassed. We're trying to be as gentle with the child as possible."

In "child-friendly rooms," police officers and social workers will interview children at the same time. Children need go only as far as the end of the hall -- into a small examining room complete with Disney characters on the walls -- to receive medical treatment.

This new "gentle approach" was evident in waiting rooms and offices outfitted with pink chairs and curtains and stuffed animals. The interviewing room was decorated with colorful fabric balloons and children's furniture.

At the new center, located on the second floor of the Winterode Building in Crownsville, four social workers will work side by side with six police officers in adjacent offices. The center will focus on sexual abuse cases but will also handle severe physical abuse cases.

Mr. Ladd said national studies showed this type of coordinated effort to be so efficient that "guilty pleas go way up" in jurisdictions using the approach. Abusers, who are also interviewed at the center, apparently are intimidated by the more effective system of handling abuse cases, he said.

"It's worked really well. Places with centers have a much higher rate of conviction," he said. "And that's the best thing for the child, who has suffered a violation of trust. They need to see the offender say it's his [or her] fault."

The new center is the culmination of a two-year coordinated effort, Police Chief Robert P. Russell said. It is the third such center in the state; Baltimore and Howard counties already have similar facilities.

Police and social workers have been conducting interviews out of the newly renovated center since early this year, although it officially opened yesterday, said Sgt. Robert Tice, supervisor of the Police Department's child abuse unit.

Carolyn W. Colvin, secretary of the state's Department of Human Resources, said her department gave the project $55,000, which was used primarily for renovations. The state's ultimate goal would be to have similar centers in all counties, she said, although current budget restrictions make that impossible.

She lauded Anne Arundel County for opening the center in tough economic times. "You're always a model for what we want to do in the rest of the state," she said. "We need all the partners working together, especially with the shrinking [government] re

sources."

"This government is moving forward despite the obstacles being put in front of us financially," County Executive Robert R. Neall said at the opening ceremony.

Mr. Ladd said operating costs for the center, which is expected to handle 25 to 40 new cases each month, would come from current social services and police budgets, since staff were reassigned to the center, not added.

"This was one-time funding only, so we had to be creative about how to open the center," he said. "We got the facility rent-free, the staff we already had. The only new expense is the contractual cost of the doctor."

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