Safe place for abused kids proposed

May 05, 1999|By MARLO BARNHART

A child advocacy center in Washington County may become a reality if area police, prosecutors and social workers have their say.

"This would be a safe, central place for sexually abused children that is child-friendly," said Stephanie Andrews, a social worker with the Washington County Department of Social Services.

In Huntsville, Ala., it's called The Little House.

"At such a place, a child victim could be interviewed just once by everybody ... in a quiet, safe place," Andrews said.

Currently, children are subjected to multiple interviews where they have to tell their story over and over again to strangers.

And sometimes those interviews take place in school, where other students can see the victims go to the office and when they return to class, often in tears.


Recently Andrews and others went to Huntsville for a four-day national symposium on child sexual abuse to learn how to handle such cases better.

Accompanying her was Susan Lochbaum, an assistant Washington County state's attorney; Troy McDonough, Maryland State Police; Kenny Barnhart, Washington County Sheriff's Department; and Bill Rourke, Hagerstown City Police.

There were seminars on how police should treat children who report such abuse, how to reach them, and how to make the difficult situation a little easier to bear.

Programs were also held on the importance of medical signs, sometimes subtle, that can often be the first and most important tools in proving the abuse, Andrews said.

And the ever-growing specter of child sexual abuse on the Internet was also addressed in several sessions.

Prosecutors were taught how to rebut defense attorneys and make sure jurors have no doubt that the child has been abused.

"We often find that jurors don't want to believe this kind of thing really happens," Lochbaum said.

Lochbaum said the symposium was very informative and gave her and the other local representatives a chance to see what can be done in Washington County.

"Maybe we could set it up here at the state's attorney's office or down at DSS," Lochbaum said. "We don't have much money for it right now."

Both Andrews and Lochbaum agree that a task force approach would also be a plus in handling these most difficult cases.

Parents would be able to see a coordinated approach - mental health, prosecutors, social workers, police, and possibly the family's therapist if they have one, Lochbaum said. 

She would like to see civic organizations get involved in funding the child advocacy center concept.

"There are grants available ... we just have to hook up with one," Andrews said.

She said Harford County has such a center and Cecil County is looking into one.

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