Child Advocacy Center opens doors

PARKERSBURG – The Children’s Listening Place Inc., Child Advocacy Center officially opened its doors Wednesday with an open house and ribbon cutting ceremony.

The center, located at 1206 Market St., Parkersburg next door to the Rusen & Auvil law offices, took its place as the 21st child advocacy center in the state and has begun providing services by providing a safe place for abused children to tell their stories to social service and law enforcement officials.

A first for the Mid-Ohio Valley, The Children’s Listening Place will serve those under the age of 18 who have been sexually abused and, or severely physically abused.

Emily Chittenden-Laird, executive director of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network, which is the state’s coalition of the Child Advocacy Center, attended Wednesday’s ceremonies.

“The 20 existing centers serve 36 counties in West Virginia. The Mid-Ohio Valley has been the last frontier, so to speak, for the child advocacy centers in West Virginia. The centers started in the southeastern part of the state; the first centers were in Lewisburg, Hinton, Princeton, Beckley, then the Wheeling center got started,” she said.

Nationally, the first center was in Huntsville, Ala., in 1985.

“Kids were being re-victimized by systems that were designed to help them, so the first center was developed in a house in Alabama, not unlike the location here. The centers are designed to make sure the children only had to tell their stories once and that everyone was working together as a team rather than at cross-purposes,” Laird said.

In the late 1990s, a national representative came to West Virginia to make a presentation, and that proved to be the catalyst for starting the centers in the Mountain State.

Laird said the system is working effectively at the existing centers.

“It’s better for the children because they don’t have to re-tell their stories several times to several different individuals; it also means better criminal justice outcomes, helps investigators coordinate their cases and there are experts who can testify and explain about child development and testimony to juries; there are many benefits to the model,” she said.

“We will work closely with prosecutors, law enforcement, child protective services. 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 Child Protective Services worker, prosecutor, law enforcement will be watching and listening to the interview,” Lisa Sutton, the center’s new executive director, said.

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. The center will focus on getting abused children connected to the services they need and officials are hopeful it will reduce stress on the victims.

“I am so excited about the Parkersburg Center; it is an underserved area; those involved are doing all the right things and I have the utmost faith this will be successful; they have excellent leadership,” Laird said.

Child Advocate board member Mike St. Clair, the county coroner, said the center will provide a safe, non-intimidating environment for child victims.

“It’s going to be great for the community, for the kids, for law enforcement, and the social service system here,” he said.

Logan County Child Advocate Center director Beth Cook served as mentor to Sutton. Logan County has had a center for six years and is expanding to a second site.

“Our state organization offers exchange mentorship, so I’ve been working with Lisa. This center has a great future,” Cook said.

Wood County Sheriff’s Deputy Shana Modesitt, who works closely with child victims, said the center will be an asset to law enforcement.

“This center is going to provide a place for the children to go, providing a safe, secure facility for them talk about their problems, it will alleviate multiple interviews of the children that usually happens, with a doctor, then law enforcement, and then an attorney. The center will enable us to all come together here and do it one time only. It will be a very good thing for the community. This has been needed for sometime, unfortunately we have a lot of child abuse victims here, and this center will really help,” Modesitt said.

Planning and work on the center here began in 2011.

Sutton said she’s done some interviews and has more scheduled.

The child advocate center project here was spearheaded by Michele Rusen, now a private practice attorney in Parkersburg and former Wood County prosecutor, and former director of the Family Crisis and Intervention Center Judi Ball. The two met with Chittenden-Laird and Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton and planning began from there.

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. Now that the center has raised the local seed funding, it will be eligible for state funding next fiscal year.

Sutton started in the director’s post 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.

“I’m also an applied behavior analyst and have specialized training in working with children who have disabilities. I was an assistant county coroner. I serve on the treatment committee of the adult drug court,” she said. “I also worked as an investigator at the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Charleston.” Sutton has also received specialized training to conduct the interviews with the children.

For more information, to sponsor a fundraiser or donate, call 304-914-4437 or email: childrenslistening place@gmail.com.