WASHINGTON COUNTY — It was more than 10 years in the making and in May, Safe Place, Washington County’s child advocacy center, celebrated 10 years of serving children and families in Washington County.
David A. Engle, director of Washington County Department of Social Services, headed up a team that was the driving force behind the project.
“We first applied on Feb. 20, 1991, to get a child advocacy center in Washington County,” Engle said of a $63,000 grant request to the state of Maryland’s Department of Human Resources. “Those were the really early days.”
That request was denied, but those who signed on remained committed to seeing their goal achieved. The grant signers included Engle and representatives from the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, Maryland State Police, Hancock Police, Hagerstown Police Department, Smithsburg Police, State’s Attorney’s Office, Washington County Health Department, Office of Child Care Licensing and Regulation regional office (now known as Office of Child Care), and Project Sensitive, which was Washington County Hospital’s program for dealing with child-abuse cases.
“We had a huge number of local players. We met from 1991 to coordinate our local services to make sure we were as responsible as possible,” Engle said.
Engle said Maryland’s first child advocacy center, in Baltimore City, opened in 1987. He credits former U.S. Rep. Robert “Bud” Cramer, who was a district attorney in Alabama at the time, for creating the child advocacy center movement in 1985.
Cramer thought professionals should come to children, not the other way around. There are now more than 600 established and developing children’s advocacy centers in the United States, according to The National Children’s Advocacy Center website, www.nationalcac.org.
A Safe Place in Washington County
“We wanted to get that service for our kids,” said Engle, who noted that Washington County is in the top five counties in Maryland with indicated cases of child abuse.
In 1999 or 2000, Engle, M. Kenneth Long Jr., who was then Washington County state’s attorney, and Ray Grahe, Washington County Hospital’s fiscal officer, met with officials from the Maryland Department of Human Resources in Baltimore to share their vision.
“It left an impression on them, that people of this stature would take a day off and advocate for our local kids,” Engle said.
Long, who is now a Washington County circuit judge, said the overriding thought was that local children deserved a place with a friendly, nonthreatening environment for an investigation to be conducted.
“You can imagine if you’re a 6- or 7-year-old kid, it’s tough talking about that stuff,” Long said.
Finding a home for Safe Place was a stumbling block.
Engle, who was on the hospital board, was aware the hospital purchased the property that is now known as the H.W. Murphy Community Health Center at Walnut Street. He asked Horace Murphy, who was the president and chief executive officer of Washington County Hospital at the time, if there was any space available and he said “yes.”
“I can’t tell you how exciting that was. Once we got a place, things fell into place,” Engle said.
The needed grant was approved the second time, in the late 1990s. In-kind contributions from other agencies helped.
Murphy said he learned through his time at the hospital that social needs are as urgent as medical needs.
“This was a project that probably should have happened long before,” said Murphy, who credits local advocates for not giving up. “The linchpin was finding a home. We knew locally there was a tremendous need. If it has served that purpose, then it is more than accomplishing what we intended.”
Washington County’s Community Partnership for Children and Families, under director Stephanie Stone, provided funding for the first director. The agency also secured grant money for a Hagerstown Police Department officer position for an additional five years.
“We were instrumental for seven to eight years in getting the funding for the director’s position until 2008,” Stone said.
Funding for medical exams came from the Washington County Health Department, Engle said.
Prior to the opening of Safe Place, children suspected of having been abused might have gone through three interviews — with Department of Social Services, the police and the state’s attorney. At Safe Place, children only have to do one interview, often with representatives from the different agencies and law enforcement observing the interview through a one-way window.
The interviews are videotaped so they can be reviewed.
“The Safe Place theory is that each one of those instances is a revictimization of the child. Now we’re more thorough in the investigations,” Engle said.
Two years ago, Safe Place tripled in size, from 2,500 square feet to about 7,500 square feet.
Safe Place serves all the sexual abuse cases involving children and those with the most serious physical abuse, through age 18, Engle said.
Safe Place offers a team of highly trained professionals that meet every week to respond to child abuse reports. The team consists of representatives from the Hagerstown Police Department, Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Maryland State Police, Washington County Department of Social Services, State’s Attorney’s Office, a therapist, a family advocate, a pediatrician, a sexual assault forensic nurse and CAC staff.
“Murphy, he was the guy who removed the last obstacle. The leadership of Ken Long in our community and the respect he commanded — I believe they’re the primary factors we’re here today,” Engle said.
In 2010, Washington County Department of Social Services investigated 1,600 cases involving nearly 4,000 children. About 25 percent, or 900 children, received services at Safe Place, Engle said.
From MedScope, a magnifying camera that allows physicians to document injuries more thoroughly, to Finding Words, a program that provides the protocol for interviewing child abuse victims in a way that is sensitive to the child and usable in court as evidence, Safe Place’s mission is to protect kids.
“We are all about reducing the trauma and helping children start the healing process as soon as they come to our attention,” Engle said. “It’s at great cost to our community as a whole when victims don’t receive the proper medical and psychological care.”