In 2013, there were 4,364 children involved in child abuse investigations in Alachua County alone. That equates to roughly 10 percent of the children who reside in the community — a shocking number. Fortunately, our community’s government and social service agencies collaborate to provide a child-focused, safe and supportive environment for child abuse intervention and investigations through the Child Advocacy Center.
The Child Advocacy Center is two things: a model for a team approach to child abuse investigations and a place for children and families to receive the care and services they need to heal from abuse. Through partnerships with local law enforcement agencies, the UF Child Protection Team, the Office of the State Attorney, Partnership for Strong Families, the Guardian ad Litem program, the Florida Department of Children and Families and Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, the Child Advocacy Center has been providing vital services to children throughout the heart of Florida since 1998.
Recently, leaders from the Child Advocacy Center and the heads of its partner agencies signed an agreement to work on a shared protocol with the ultimate goal of opening a facility where all the community professionals who serve abused children can work together under one roof. Co-location will ensure that children who have been abused have a safety net in place to keep them from falling through cracks in the system and will also lessen the burden on child protection agencies.
As a nonprofit organization, the Child Advocacy Center is funded through grants and charitable giving and remains extremely flexible in the services it can provide to families in need. The Child Advocacy Center’s signature fundraising event is a country-western themed gala, Gainesville Gone Austin, which will enjoy its sixth annual opening in 2014. The event provides important funding to sustain the center’s operations. According to CAC President and CEO Sherry Kitchens, last year’s event broke a fundraising record with over $85,000 raised. Organizers hope to raise $100,000 at the 2014 event, which is scheduled for October 16th at the Santa Fe River Ranch near Alachua.
“We are so grateful for the outpouring of support from the community, our board of directors, our partner agencies and event sponsors,” Kitchens said. “We are confident that the community will rally around the center and our vision of co-location to help us raise the funds we need.”
The center is also gearing up for its annual Help for the Holidays gift campaign. Each year, the center matches families in need with donors who are interested in providing gifts, clothing and food for children who would otherwise not receive any. The center’s victim services coordinator, Lisa Litz, said the campaign served 121 children and 47 adults from 39 families in 2013. Businesses or individuals can select a family to “adopt” through an online sign-up on the Child Advocacy Center’s website beginning in late October.
“This heartwarming program is one of the most joyous ways that a sponsor can make an immediate, meaningful impact on members of the families we serve,” Litz said.
Help for children in need is not limited to the holiday season. The center serves children of all ages year-round who have been victims of physical and sexual abuse, neglect, drug endangerment and human trafficking. Since January 2014, the center has served 12 young girls who were reported as trafficked in the community — girls like Tracy*, a teenager with an extensive history of run-ins with the police. When Tracy was first assigned an advocate from the Child Advocacy Center, she was angry and in trouble. For weeks, Tracy vented to her advocate during their daily visits at the juvenile detention center. Tracy had been through unimaginable circumstances of sexual abuse and human trafficking that left her scarred, both inside and out.
After months of visits, Tracy was released from the detention center and sent home. Tracy and her advocate continued to meet weekly, and eventually, they were permitted to meet at the Child Advocacy Center. During one of their visits, Tracy commented on the many painted handprints that adorn the walls of the center. Her advocate explained that each of those handprints was left by a child who was seen at the center for a forensic interview or play therapy session. She questioned her advocate, “Why haven’t I been asked to do one?” This was the beginning of Tracy beginning to explore the childhood she missed.
That afternoon, Tracy spent 30 minutes selecting just the right paint colors to leave her own unique handprint on the wall of the center’s forensic interview room.
Stories like Tracy’s occur every day at the Child Advocacy Center. In 2013, the Child Advocacy Center served 1,500 child victims of abuse and 999 of their non-offending caregivers. Sherry Kitchens estimated that the center has served tens of thousands of children since opening its doors in 1998.
Kitchens is encouraged that even more childhoods will be restored through the work of the center and its partners now that all the agencies involved have re-committed to serving child abuse victims through a collaborative, team approach.
Visit www.ChildAdvocacyCenterGainesville.org to learn more about the center and Gainesville Gone Austin or to register to take a tour of the facility.
*Name changed to protect her identity.