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A magic show that can heal children, too

April 24, 2008|By BOB MAGINNIS

Members of the Friends of Safe Place, Washington County's Child Advocacy Center, have learned one thing the hard way - in Hagerstown, many people tend to buy tickets to an event at the last minute.

They believe that's why, as of Thursday, there have been fewer than 300 tickets sold to this coming Saturday's second annual Evening of Comedy & Magic, to be held at 7 p.m. at The Maryland Theatre.

Jeanne Singer, president of Friends of Safe Place, said that the group needed an annual fundraiser, but decided that rather than another black-tie event, it wanted a family-friendly night out that children could attend and enjoy.

Singer said the show is more than parlor tricks, but is a mixture of magic and comedy presented by performers who've performed around the nation and the world.

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If you've never heard of Safe Place, it's an agency that was founded to help children who are the victims of sexual abuse and severe physical abuse.

In a friendly setting more like a playroom than a police interrogation room, young victims are interviewed by one person, while representatives of other agencies - police, social workers and representatives of the state's attorney's office - watch through a digital camera system.

The interviewer uses a concealed ear piece, so that if any of the agency representatives have a question, they can relay it discreetly.

Teresa Thorn, Safe Place's project manager, explained that the digital system replaces one that used VHS tapes.

Not only is the picture quality better, Thorn said, but the system can also "burn" four copies quickly, so that every agency can have its own version of the child's interview.

The seven-year-old agency is undergoing many changes, the most visible of which is a project to double its 2,400-square-foot office at the Murphy Center at 24 Walnut St. in downtown Hagerstown.

Both Singer and Thorn said that the expansion was necessary because the center is seeing so many children.

Despite what some regard as its peaceful, rural nature, Washington County is fourth in the state in reports of indicated child abuse.

Whether that ranking is due to better reporting here is uncertain, but Thorn and Singer say that what is indisputable are the number of children the agency sees.

There are about 1,600 reports of child abuse in this county every year, Thorn said. Reports of neglect are handled by the Department of Social Services, while the 750 to 800 reports that involve sexual or serious physical abuse go to Safe Place.

"We had a spike to 935 last year," Singer said.

Thorn said that "our goal is to interview every child who has been a victim of sexual and/or severe physical abuse."

The agency's expanded quarters should help with that, Thorn said.

There will be two additional parent rooms, that will help to preserve a family's confidentiality, Thorn said. She added that they've also addressed the problems of space for pre-teens and teenagers for whom the playroom-style areas might not be appropriate.

The staff, now 13 strong, will also have additional space, though not individual offices. Thorn said that's because the group works together, it's important that they have quick access to each other to set up meetings, ask others' opinions and the like.

The conference room has been expanded, too, Thorn said, so that some of the attendees will no longer have to stand in the hall and listen.

The size of the medical exam room will be doubled, from about eight-by-10 feet to 16-by-20 feet. Thorn said that will allow medical files to be secured there and provide space for a large device that can magnify children's injuries.

The expansion will cost just $60,000, courtesy of a generous bid from Callas Contractors, Singer said. The money came from reserves accumulated when Safe Place was the recipient of funds from the Washington County Health System's Crystal Ball, Singer said.

But capital funds are one thing, while operating cash is another. The agency's annual budget will grow from $50,000 a year to $80,000 to $85,000 in its new space, Singer said.

While the salaries of Safe Place workers are taken care of by various agencies, Safe Place must cover the rent, cleaning, supplies and staff training. The agency recently became a United Way member agency, but the success of Saturday's event is crucial, Thorn and Singer said.

If you need a laugh and a place to take your children for some wholesome entertainment, why not try this show? Sadly, for the agency, there are plenty of tickets left. But that means that even so close to the event, you can still get seats.

Tickets are $20. For yours, call The Maryland Theatre box office at 301-790-2000 or reserve seats on-line at www.mdtheatre.org.

Enjoy yourself, knowing that your purchase of a ticket will help child abuse victims and might even help convict their abusers.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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