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Md. first lady praises Safe Place for centralized approach

January 31, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN

andrews@herald-mail.com

Washington County's coordinated system for investigating child abuse celebrated its fifth anniversary Monday, plus two other new achievements: accreditation and a $111,000 state grant.

Kendel Ehrlich, Maryland's first lady, who spoke at the center Monday, said she saw the benefits of a similar system when she was a Harford County, Md., prosecutor.

The Washington County Child Advocacy Center, known as Safe Place, is where representatives from law enforcement, the court system, social services, health and other fields work together on child abuse cases.

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Because of the centralized approach, a child only has to tell his or her story of abuse once at Safe Place instead of more than 10 times in various offices, said Nancy Chandler, executive director of the National Children's Alliance in Washington, D.C.

Safe Place, on North Walnut Street in Hagerstown, was busy last year, Program Manager Teresa Thorn said.

Washington County had 1,664 reports of child abuse and neglect in 2005, which ranked second in the state, Thorn said.

Safe Place - which handles mostly sexual abuse but some physical abuse, too - worked with 896 children, she said. Not all of the county's abuse cases were sent there.

Ehrlich referred to them as "unsettling, staggering numbers."

"Our work will not be done until every child is safe from abuse and neglect," Thorn said.

Ehrlich announced that this month the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention awarded Safe Place $110,792 over two years.

Thorn said the money will pay for more hours for forensic nurse examiner Joyce Williams, who currently works at Safe Place four hours a week. A forensic nurse examiner is trained in evidence collection.

Safe Place is equipped with a MedScope, which magnifies images of injuries much larger than what the naked eye can see, Thorn said.

The office is set up to be comforting to young children. Interview rooms are small and cozy, with hidden cameras so police officers or parents can watch along on a monitor in another room.

Testimony is important because sexual abuse is "the very hardest crime to prove," Chandler said. "Seldom is there evidence. It's not done out in public."

The National Children's Alliance has 10 standards for centers like Safe Place to meet to be accredited.

They include having: a "child-friendly" facility, procedures that work in more than one culture, neutral interviews and a case-tracking system.

Another is having a "multidisciplinary team," including representatives from law enforcement, child protective services, prosecution, mental health, medicine and victim advocacy, as well as the center itself.

"You're trying to get a lot of people working together, but you really have no control over them," Chandler said.

A center can operate without National Children's Alliance accreditation, but having it is an extra stamp of approval.

National Children's Alliance accredited Safe Place in October 2005.

A task force started looking into a children's advocacy center for Washington County about nine years ago.

Safe Place board member David A. Engle, the director of the Department of Social Services in Washington County, said M. Kenneth Long Jr. was a catalyst for getting the center opened.

Long, a district judge scheduled to be sworn in as a circuit judge Friday, was Washington County's state's attorney at the time.

Washington County Hospital donated the space for the Safe Place, Engle said.

Without Long's leadership and the hospital's donation, "I'm not sure we'd be as far ahead as we are today," he said.

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