DA aims to build center for abuse victims

Some of the victims are babies as young as 6 months.

Some are girls just 2 and 3 years old.

And while other victims are in their teens, most of the 222 child sexual assault and physical abuse and neglect cases reported last year in Franklin County and Athol involve children between 8 and 12 years old, according to Susan Loehn, executive director of the Northwestern Children’s Advocacy Center.

The center, connected with the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, is set up in a restored farmhouse in Northampton, where young victims of abuse are interviewed by trained forensic experts. There, they’re also often given a physical exam by a specially trained physician to assure that they’re safe and free of sexually transmitted disease, as well as to gather any legal evidence.

For a young victim who’s already been through difficulties most adults couldn’t and wouldn’t want to imagine, that’s enough of an ordeal. But at least, the setting is a familiar-looking farmhouse with a kid-friendly waiting room with a pixie-decorated mural. Similar, pastel-colored murals are on the walls of the interview room, and the examining room has comfortable-looking shutters, a little bed and a mural with a grassy hillside and blue sky.

Child victims in Franklin County get a somewhat less cozy reception. Their interviews take place in the brick-and mortar DA’s office on Greenfield’s Wells Street, with state police and others walking by in a setting that’s institutional and part of what may feel like a continuing trauma. And when it comes time for their medical exam, that’s typically done in Springfield, at the Baystate Medical Center’s Family Advocacy Center.

That’s about to change, thanks to a new local effort to build Franklin County’s own children’s advocacy center with a “child-friendly” feel to help young assault victims toward recovery.

“We think it will make a big difference,” said Loehn. “Franklin County kids deserve a nice home to go to, and less trauma, too.”

That’s been the thinking since before the Northampton center was opened back in 2006, with involvement of Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School and Hampshire County supporters.

“It was always a goal of ours to have a center here, and it was in our five-year plan,” said Loehn, a former Northwestern DA prosecutor with 30 years of experience specializing in child sexual abuse cases and the only employee of the nonprofit center.

The planned center here moved a little closer to reality when Northwestern DA David Sullivan attended the Greenfield High School groundbreaking last April and asked teacher Mark Leonard whether his woodworking and construction students would have the capacity to work on such a project. No, said Leonard, but there were two modular classroom buildings that were about to be removed from the school grounds. Would one of those work?

With help from Leonard, and inmates from the Franklin County House of Correction, Sullivan rescued the donated, roughly 12,000-square-foot building, moving it until a suitable site can be found in a central location like Greenfield or Turners Falls.

“I’m thinking trailer, but they’re not,” said Loehn. The modular building, which Sullivan had moved to a lot, looks more like a ranch house and is equipped with handicapped-accessible restrooms, heating and air conditioning, with classrooms that can be subdivided into smaller spaces to be used as a waiting room, exam room, and an interview room, with a two-way mirror behind which police, prosecutors and child advocates from the state Department of Children and Families can watch and prompt the interviewer. In that way, the child only has to be subjected to a single interview, which is then videotaped so that a defense attorney and a probate judge can watch it later if necessary without having the child go through the stress of multiple interviews.

Part of the function of a child advocacy center, of which there are 11 in Massachusetts, is to refer the child for follow-up treatment, including counseling and medical services, when necessary, and to support the victim and non-offending family members through the legal process. It’s also to provide education and training in the community about child abuse and neglect.

In addition to donations of the structure, a Franklin County advisory council has come forward and has begun planning for a site where the building can be adapted by Franklin County Technical School students.

The board has also begun work on fundraising toward a projected budget of $100,000 to $125,000, with half the $17,500 proceeds from an Oct. 3 benefit art auction already dedicated for the project. That work includes efforts to raise money from the second annual 24-hour “Valley Gives” drive on Dec. 12, during which the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts will match donations.

A Jan. 6 soup and games night benefit is also planned at Greenfield’s Hope and Olive restaurant.

Meanwhile, the board is looking for local people — contractors, donors and other volunteers — to step forward to work on the project, which Loehn said will probably involve equipping the building with a porch, putting in a foundation and providing furnishings.

“We need community people who say, ‘We want this here and we’ll help you,” Loehn said. “The important thing is to stop the abuse and make the child safe.”

The site here needs to be centrally located near a bus line so it can be reached by victims from the Athol-Orange area as well as other outlying parts of Franklin County, which has the highest per-capita incidence of cases anywhere in the state, according to data from the DA’s office.

In the first nine months of this year alone, 111 young victims from Franklin County and Athol have been interviewed and received services from the center. Since 2008, the number of cases from the 27-town Franklin County area has ranged from 145 to 158. Most of the cases involve physical abuse and neglect rather than sexual abuse.

Many of the cases are referred to the state Department of Children and Families, which gets reports from teachers, parents, or police, said Loehn. The vast majority of assaults are by someone who is known by the child, and in the case of sexual assault, it often takes a long time before the child feels safe enough to disclose what happened. Many cases never go to trial because the child doesn’t feel safe coming forward, or risks losing the comfort of home, siblings and school by doing so.

“Studies show that a child who is supported by one of the parents is more likely to testify,” she said. “Sadly, we have cases where a mom chooses to not believe her child, and supports the husband or boyfriend, the child is removed from the home, and that results in a lot of trauma,” Loehn added.

Once the Franklin County center gets up and running, Sullivan said, it will be up to the local advisory board to raise funds toward a budget that in Hampshire County runs about $100,000 a year.

In addition to fundraising and donations from residents and businesses, that funding, which pays to operate the facility and for equipment, comes in part from the Massachusetts Alliance for Children, which provides $20,000 to the Northampton Center, accredited a year ago.

Franklin County victims, typically, are examined at the Springfield hospital, Loehn said, since they would already be traveling a distance on Interstate 91 anyway, and the Family Advocacy Center at Baystate has the advantage of having a pediatrician who is certified in child-abuse pediatrics, Dr. Stephen Boos. Although there is no such certified specialist in Franklin or Hampshire counties, Sullivan and Loehn say they hope a Franklin County child-advocacy center could have a certified pediatrician or pediatric nurse.

“The only way for this to be successful is for the community to embrace it,” said Sullivan. “Kids need to have a place to tell their own story to move on to healing.”

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