What can you do about child abuse?
Sometimes the answer is as simple as buying pull-ups.
In February, staff at the Child Advocacy Center discovered that a young girl involved in an abuse case was continually wetting her bed at night and at school. Immediately, they reached out to the Gainesville community; working together, they were able to come to her rescue. Within two hours of posting the need for pull-ups on Facebook, donations were already piled up in the office: 15 boxes of pull-ups, mattress pads, monetary donations and a teddy bear.
Reaching out to children in need is at the heart of the mission of the Child Advocacy Center.
The organization brings together 10 different agencies involved with child abuse cases in order to make difficult situations easier for both the child and his or her family. The center helps to childproof the legal system, making it less scary for children who have already been traumatized by abuse and streamlining the process for non-offending caregivers who are already overwhelmed.
“Part of what makes us unique is that our center is child friendly,” said Margot Wilder, development director for the Child Advocacy Center. “We want them to feel safe and comfortable. We want them to feel supported so it makes it a little easier for them to come back for their therapy. It makes it easier for caregivers to call us and ask for help.”
Every detail of the center is designed with children in mind, from the colorfully decorated waiting room to the handprints that line the walls. The handprints are a reminder of the children the organization has helped, each as unique as a handprint.
No other agency in the county provides the same spectrum of services as the Child Advocacy Center while providing support for children and families.
The center, which has operated in Gainesville since 1998, provides forensic interviewing, therapy, case management, victim advocacy and case tracking for victims of abuse.
The center simplifies each step of the case to make it easier for children. Instead of facing multiple agencies for the forensic interview, children tell their stories to one individual in a safe, soundproof room.
The agencies can then communicate information about the case and collaborate while watching the interview from a closed-circuit television.
After the interview is over, the child is allowed to pick a toy to bring home, whether it is one stuffed animal or an armful of them.
Another important service the center offers is therapy for the children and families affected by abuse. Therapy helps to reduce the effects of trauma and gives children coping mechanisms to keep them safe in the long run, Wilder said. Over time, therapy gives children the skills needed to help break the cycle of abuse.
“Children are amazingly resilient if they can get the help that they need,” said Lisa Litz, the center’s victim services coordinator. “It is probably the number one prevention tool out there if we can get these kids the help that they need so it doesn’t happen again.”
The therapy sessions, which help to restore the bonds within a family and help children recover from abuse, are free and available to all children as long as they need them. Each room for therapy is equipped with art supplies, a dollhouse, a sand tray and a puppet house to allow children to express themselves through play therapy.
“When a child is able to be themselves unashamedly, that’s success to me,” Litz said. “The abuse is not a problem for them. Their self-esteem is up, and they’re free.”
Because the center relies heavily on funding to continue operating, community support is essential, whether it’s donating pull-ups and mattress pads, taking a tour or donating to the organization. It makes a difference for the children who can walk out of the center, leaving behind the painful memories of abuse and keeping only a teddy bear and their self-confidence.
“What’s really amazing to me is watching this community rally around children who really need help, and say, ‘This is unacceptable. We’ll do whatever we can to help.’” Wilder said.
On Valentine’s Day, the center delivered the pull-ups and donations to the family. When the young girl testifies in court for her case, she will have peace of mind along with the support of an entire community to pull her through.
In Alachua County, child abuse is a growing problem. Between Nov. 2012 and Oct. 2013, the Florida Department of Children and Families investigated 2,955 cases and found 2,600 victims of child maltreatment.
Throughout 2013, the Child Advocacy Center provided 47,782 services to more than 1,400 victims of abuse and 961 non-offending family members.