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For safety’s sake: Center offers safe space to interview suspected abused children

LAUREN WOOD | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Glenda Wilson, the director of the Children’s Advocacy Center, sits in the conference room as a simulated interview in the interview room takes place on the screen behind her.

NATCHEZ — The world can sometimes be a painful place.

And sometimes, when a child is a recipient of that pain, he or she just needs a safe space to be able to tell the story and begin the healing process.

The Children’s Advocacy Center at the Natchez Children’s Home aims to be that space. The center opened in January.

The center is one of eight such facilities in Mississippi, and is meant to abate the trauma a child has to experience once they have been referred to law enforcement or social services for suspected abuse, said Nancy Hungerford, executive director of the Natchez Children’s Home.

LAUREN WOOD | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — The interview room is equipped with two cameras that stream onto a screen in an adjacent room for members of the multidisciplinary team to observe the situation.

“It is meant to reduce the trauma that a child experiences when there has been not only physical or sexual abuse, but also the re-traumatizing of the child when they have to turn around and tell their story to 15 or 16 people, somebody at social services, somebody at the district attorney’s office, somebody with law enforcement,” Hungerford said.

The CAC does this by having one forensic interviewer who questions the child. Two cameras in the interview room — which is designed to feel like a friendly space — record the interview as members of a multidisciplinary team that includes representatives of law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, the children’s home, Adams County Youth Court and the Court Appointed Special Advocates watch the interview in real time.

One of the cameras focuses on the child’s face while the other provides a wide pan of the interview room. Both images are projected in a split screen in the conference room where the members of the multidisciplinary team watch.

CAC Director Glenda Wilson, who said the interview method used is meant to be objective, neutral, non-suggestive and non-leading way to obtain information, conducts the forensic interviews. The interview process hinges on the RATAC acronym, which stands for rapport; anatomy identification; touch inquiry; abuse scenario and closure.

“We build rapport with the child first by asking them questions about what they do for fun, what kind of things they like to do,” Wilson said.

“Then usually you bring out these drawings that are anatomically correct depictions of a male and a female, then you ask them to name them for you so you know what they call the different parts of the bodies.”

Touch inquiry starts with questions about how the child likes to be touched — do they like to get hugs or tickles?

“Then you ask them if they get touches they don’t like,” Wilson said. “You ask them where on the drawing to point out where they get touches they don’t like.”

If the child identifies that they have been touched inappropriately, Wilson said the interviewer asks for more information without being specific.

“If they tell you so-and-so touched me, you say, ‘Well, tell me about that,’” Wilson said. “You don’t use any leading questions, you just ask them to provide the details of the allegations in a way they understand.”

The closure portion of the interview is to talk about personal safety and thank the child for talking with the interviewer.

While Wilson is the director of the center, all of the members of the multidisciplinary team received the forensic interview training when the children’s home decided to start the center in the fall of 2011, Wilson said.

So far, the center has conducted 19 interviews. While Hungerford said the center plans to expand to provide its services to Amite, Claiborne, Copiah, Franklin, Jefferson and Wilkinson counties, to date it has only served Adams County. The next closest children’s advocacy center is in McComb.

The CAC got its start largely at the suggestion of Youth Court Judge John Hudson, Hungerford said.

“Judge Hudson was weary of having to send a child 65 miles away, usually requiring a full day and somebody to take them and then come back, and sometimes they don’t disclose, they clam up,” Hungerford said.

“It is tender and raw stuff, and you don’t ever know how a child is going to respond.”

“This is going to allow us to cut a lot of travel time out for children from our area. It will be a place that is friendly, safe and we have follow up services for families.”

Because the CAC is operated by the Natchez Children’s Home, it is funded by donations, though Hungerford said she planned to approach the Adams County Board of Supervisors, as well as the supervisors in the surrounding counties, about appropriating funds to the center. The video equipment and other hardware were purchased through a grant. The center is located in the children’s home’s facility on North Union Street.

“I already had all the rooms here, so it made a great deal of sense to take a wing or a portion of our building for (the CAC),” Hungerford said.

The public simply needs to know that the CAC is available to provide any help they can, she said.

“We are thrilled to be able to offer this to the children in the southwestern part of Mississippi,” Hungerford said.

“I wish I didn’t have to have it, but I am glad that we do.”