Center is safe place for small victims

December 31, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

One of the interview rooms in the Department of Social Services' Safe Place Child Advocacy Center is designed for its small clients.

The red two-cushion couch is no more than 3 feet wide and the blue foam chair is dwarfed by a 6-foot-tall police officer. The stuffed animal on the counter near the two-way mirror, under the discreet security camera, peers lazily through glued-on eyes.

This bright room, nestled in a Washington County Hospital annex building on Walnut Street, is where some of Washington County's darkest conversations occur, but it also represents a growing trend in dealing with young victims of violence.


"We want kids to feel safe when they come here," said Teresa Thorn, program manager of the Child Advocacy Center.

The center opened in early 2001 with a handful of social workers, but steadily has increased the size of its staff. A full-time Hagerstown police detective has been stationed there since August and an assistant Washington County State's Attorney works out of the office two to three days a week.

There also is space for investigators from the Washington County Sheriff's Department and Maryland State Police.

Detective Shane Blankenship is the officer stationed at the Child Advocacy Center. Each month, he handles about 25 to 30 new criminal abuse cases, most of which begin as reports to the Department of Social Services that are forwarded to him.

Blankenship said there is no common thread among the cases he's seen, but they include physical beatings and sexual assaults on boys and girls as young as infants up through adolescence.

Once a case has been referred to him, the victims and their guardians - but not the alleged offenders - are taken to the center instead of to a "scary-looking police department," Blankenship said.

He and a social worker sit with the parents to explain what happens next. Blankenship and a social worker then interview the child.

One interview

Because having to go through interviews too many times can be traumatizing for a child, "the goal is to interview the victim - the child - one time," Blankenship said.

"If we can get this done in one shot and do it well, then we've done our jobs," Blankenship said.

The center has several tools with which to accomplish that goal. There is a staff therapist and an on-call pediatrician who can examine a child for signs of abuse. If the abuse happened within 72 hours of the complaint, the victim is taken to a hospital emergency room.

Also, each interview room - one for youngsters and two for older children - is equipped with monitoring equipment. That way, a victim can speak with an investigator with whom he or she feels most comfortable, while another can watch the conversation from another room and offer advice through an earpiece.

The interviews serve as evidence in a possible criminal case. Sometimes there is enough to press criminal charges, sometimes there is not.

The center, which is funded mainly through federal grants, is handling more abuse cases every year, Blankenship and Thorn said.

There are about 1,500 child-abuse cases every year in Washington County. Between October 2002 and August 2003, the center served about 600 clients.

Blankenship, who has been with the Hagerstown Police Department for 14 years, said he still is getting used to the volume of cases.

"I think it does wear on you, but right now I think it's a fantastic opportunity," Blankenship said. "These kids are the victims and they need every bit of help they can get."

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