A safe spot for scary revelations Center helps solve sex abuse cases

September 19, 1993|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

The waiting room at the new Child Advocacy Center in Bel Air looks like a small family rec room. A sofa upholstered in floral print sits against one wall and a child's table and chairs along another.

There are books, a toy box and a stuffed dinosaur named Barney. It's a room that would make a young child feel comfortable very quickly.

That's the whole goal of the center, says Jerome Reyerson, assistant director of Harford County's Department of Social Services. He oversees the department's handling of child sex abuse cases.

"Sex abuse cases are by far the most difficult to investigate," he said. "A neutral, comfortable environment makes a child feel safe and is more conducive to getting a statement."

The center, which opened last month in a suite of offices at 130 N. Bond St., consolidates the efforts of Social Services, three area police departments and the State's Attorney's office in one location. The team effort not only minimizes the number of interviews a child must go through during an investigation, but also expedites work on the cases, investigators say.

Despite the freshly painted walls and new carpeting that came with its lease in a brand new office building, the Child Advocacy Center is operating on a shoestring, its advocates say.

A $13,000 start-up grant from the county will cover the first year's rent, but much of the furniture and office equipment is coming in through donations. Contributions from local businesses and individuals helped put the waiting room together, and the county transferred some used office furniture along with its employees.

But Mr. Reyerson said the need for contributions is still great. The center has received $2,000 in cash donations, he said, "but that doesn't go far in covering unexpected costs and the equipment that is still needed," including a camera for the interviewing room and monitors.

The center's staff includes three social workers, three police officers -- one each from the Harford County Sheriff's Office, the Maryland State Police and the Aberdeen Police Department -- an assistant state's attorney and a supervisor from Social Services.

Police departments in Bel Air and Havre de Grace could not commit full-time staff to the center, but have cooperative agreements to use the facilities.

The team approach is not a new idea. The center is modeled after a cooperative agency in Baltimore County, one of the first in the nation to put police and social workers together in the same setting to investigate child sex abuse, Mr. Reyerson said. That center opened four years ago.

Similar offices have since opened in other Maryland counties, all growing out of an increased awareness in the 1980s of crimes against children.

Since 1984, Maryland law has required that any report of child sexual abuse be investigated jointly by the police and the Department of Social Services and that the child be interviewed within 24 hours.

Some children are interviewed by investigators at school, particularly if that's where the report originated. But many pre-school children have had to go to a police station or the Department of Social Services -- sometimes both, if the two investigators couldn't be coordinated for one appointment. If the charge requires the child to have a physical exam, he or she may have to talk about the abuse again, to a physician.

The neutral setting of the advocacy center is intended to relieve much of the emotional trauma related to disclosure.

The interviewing room, where social workers and police sit down together with a child, is simply furnished, but comfortable. There are framed prints on the walls, but little else to distract the youngster.

"To make a statement about sexual abuse is traumatic. Here it is quiet, warm and inviting," says Sgt. Edward Hopkins of the Harford County Sheriff's Office.

The neutral setting, he says, is warmer than a busy police department and less intimidating than the child's home, where the actual abuse might have taken place. "It makes it easier to develop a relationship of trust and to get the child focused," he said.

Investigators had considered installing a two-way mirror in the room, but decided that could be intimidating, he said.

Nearby are the offices of social workers, police and prosecutors -- close enough so that any member of the team need walk only a few steps to another's office to confer on a case. That alone can save hours, even days, in moving the investigation along.

"This is a dedicated unit now," said Sergeant Hopkins, who has been investigating child abuse cases for seven years. "Investigators used to be under the gun to handle emergencies first, and put abuse cases aside. But now that we're in one place, we hope to avoid that."

While the majority of referrals to Harford's Child Advocacy Center come through Social Services, many cases of abuse are reported directly to the center by schools, parents, neighbors and doctors.

The staff has investigated 28 reports of child sexual abuse in Harford County since it opened seven weeks ago.

That's four more than the number of cases investigated in the county in all of 1983.

Indeed, the reports have grown tenfold in less than 10 years. By 1992, the number of investigations in a year had increased to 249.

Of that number, about half were "indicated," or believed by Social Services actually to have taken place, Mr. Reyerson said.

As the number of child sex abuse reports increases, the average age of the children seems to be getting lower.

Last year, 76 percent of the referrals to Social Services involved children under 12.

Mr. Reyerson believes that's due in part to increased education in the schools about sexual abuse, which has more children talking to one another as well as to teachers or counselors.

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