Child advocate center opening

PARKERSBURG – Wood County is joining 20 other counties in West Virginia to offer a child advocacy center where abused children will have a place to tell their stories.

A first for the Mid-Ohio Valley, the Childrens Listening Place is temporarily housed at 1206 Market St. next to Rusen & Auvil law offices.

The center will serve those under 18 who have been sexually abused or severely physically abused.

“We work closely with prosecutors, law enforcement, child protective services. We have met with them and they are all on board. As the process works, the child comes to the child-friendly center, an interview will be conducted and it will be video-taped. In the other room, the CPS worker, prosecutor, law enforcement will be watching and listening to the interview,” said Lisa Sutton, the center’s new executive director.

“Once we get the video-taping equipment, which has to be top of the line and costs about $15,000, and get the furnishings in place, we can begin operations,” she said. “I’m hoping that will happen by the first part of July.”

If the case goes to court, Sutton said the center will assist in familiarizing the child with the courtroom and the process to make it less intimidating and frightening for them.

“Having a child advocacy center will be a huge benefit to children in this area. Child advocacy centers focus on getting abused children connected to the services they need through a coordinated child focused approach. I expect that having a local child advocacy center will greatly reduce stress on the child victims from the moment they are identified as a potential victim of abuse,” said Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton.

“They will be able to go to a non-threatening setting and talk to well trained individuals who can discover what has happened to the child and take that information based upon their expertise and knowledge get the child referred to the services that they need to start the long road to recovery. From a prosecution standpoint, it is certainly easier to work with a child who has begun the healing process long before they set foot in a courtroom to testify against their abuser,” Wharton said.

The child advocate center project here was spearheaded by Michele Rusen, a private practice attorney in Parkersburg and a former Wood County Prosecutor, and former Family Crisis and Intervention Center director Judi Ball. The two met with West Virginia Child Advocacy Network Executive Director Emily Chittenden-Laird and with Wharton, supported the project.

From there, the planning began.

“The need for a center like this in Wood County is great. If you look at a map of the state’s existing centers, there is a big gap in our region,” Rusen said.

The local program has received its nonprofit, tax exempt status, certification as a child advocacy center, numerous grants, established a board of directors and hired an executive director.

Sutton started as in the director in February. She comes from a background with the Wood County Department of Health and Human Services where she served for several years in the Child Protective Services office.

She is an applied behavior analyst and has specialized training in working with children who have disabilities. Sutton was an assistant county coroner, served on the treatment committee of the adult drug court and was an investigator for the State Medical Examiner in Charleston.

Sutton said so far, the center has been awarded grants totaling $70,000 including from McDonough Foundation, the Sisters of St. Joseph Charitable Fund and $20,000 from the state Legislature. Some donations have also been received from local contributors.

“We are in the process of applying for several other grants and we have a fundraising event scheduled for April, which is Child Abuse Awareness Month. We will be selling blue bracelets for donations to raise funds for some training sessions that will be offered,” Sutton said.

Sutton said the center is in the process of applying for more grants.

The goal is to be in the temporary location for no more than a year, with plans to lease or purchase a more permanent location.

The center will initially serve only Wood County, but Sutton said future plans are to expand to serve neighboring counties which do not currently offer the child advocate office services.

“The centers usually average about 250-350 children being interviewed a year. According to the statistics from the CPS in Wood County, Child Protective Services is averaging about 300 reported cases of sexual abuse a year,” she said.

Sutton has received specialized training to conduct the interviews with the children.

“Using this method, they only have to tell their story once, not be interviewed multiple times which can bring back the trauma, or cause them to become confused,” she said.

She may use anatomically correct dolls to help the child identify body parts if the child discloses contact that might constitute abuse.

“Children sometimes have pet names for body parts, so we need to make sure it’s clear what they are talking about,” she said. Sutton also has special training in working with children who have mental or developmental disabilities.

Sutton brings several years of experience in working with child abuse victims to her new job.

“I love working with the children, it’s my calling. I loved working in the CPS about four years,” she said. “When this job became available, it seemed like the perfect fit for me. I’m very excited to get started and I feel very fortunate to have this job,” she said. “Wood County really needs this program,” she said.

“We are in the process of applying for several other grants and we have a fundraising events scheduled for April, which is Child Abuse Awareness Month. We will be selling blue bracelets for donations to raise funds for some training sessions that will be offered,” Sutton said.

For more information on the program or to donate, call Sutton at at 304-917-4437 or at childrenslisteningplace@gmail.com. The West Virginia Child Advocate Network website is wvcan.org.