Butler County’s Safe Place–Advocacy Center gives comfort to children

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Just off Caldwell Street in Greenville, there is place that is completely devoted to children. It is not spoken of too often, and residents may not know it is there. But, it's a place where children in Butler County who have had a history of family or abuse problems can go to help move forward in their lives. The place is The Butler County Children’s Advocacy Center.

&uot;We have the Butler County Multidisciplinary Team and weekly, we draw together local law enforcement, the district attorney’s office and the Department of Human Resources for the sole purpose of monitoring and investigating child abuse cases,&uot; said Cathy Smyph, director of the center. &uot;We work on it as a collaborative team along with the family to investigate these cases fairly, and to look for the truth.&uot;

She said that the reason why many local agencies are involved is to give responsibility to all agencies to investigate. &uot;It is a truth seeking mission that also gives the responsibility of the investigation jointly to all of these offices so that it is not squarely on the shoulders of one person or one agency,&uot; she said.

The director said that the Butler County Children's Advocacy Center was a project that was taken on by the community, and was one that was based on a national center where children could talk in a more comfortable setting. She explained that before the creation of the center, the investigative process was often scary for children. &uot;Before the advocacy center, they would go up to the police department or the district attorney's office, and the children would come back and say, I thought I was going to jail.' The district attorney's office was scary because it is up in the belfry of the courthouse and we would go in the back of the courtroom where it is really dark and kind of gloomy, and many times there would be lawyers there trying cases at the same time.&uot;

Smyph said that the investigation process through the time of the trial is often a lengthy one. &uot;When a family comes in and is so traumatized about what has happened to their child, we ask for the time that is needed to complete an investigation. That means bringing a child in, interviewing him/her or witnesses, gathering evidence and verifying what the child has said. A lot of times you are able to do that (verify), but a lot of times it is strictly based on word versus word.

&uot;A polygraph may be offered to the perpetrator, and on rare occasions, it has been offered to a victim. We have a philosophy that we are going to do what is best for the child. We don't want to re-traumatize that child with the system,&uot; she said.

Smyph said that in trying to determine the truthfulness of the case, the information is weighed and the forensic interviewers are trained to refrain from asking leading questions so that the information will be credible in court. She said the interviewers are very knowledgeable about the process and can identify if a child is not telling the truth or if the child has been told what to say.

She said that ultimately, it is the decision of the district attorney on whether or not to prosecute, but historically, the district attorney relies on the recommendation of the multidisciplinary team. &uot;We also work very closely with the counselors to determine if the child is emotionally ready to go through the system. If it is a felony case, we have to consider that the child possibly will go through a preliminary hearing, a grand jury and a trial. There are some four-year-olds that can go through that without a problem, and there are some adults who would have a very hard time doing that. It all depends on the person, the trauma they have experienced and how they are coping with that. We do prepare the parents for the process,&uot; she said.

The actual time before trial if the family and/or district attorney chooses to prosecute could be from a couple of months to a couple of years. &uot;Unless it is a capital case, everyone is entitled to a bond. A case could take a couple of years if there is DNA evidence that has to be sent off to a state lab. A rape case right now with the backlog at Forensic Sciences could take six, nine or 12 months to come back. So, you're talking about an eight-year-old child victim being 10 or 11 years old before going to trial.&uot;

To help the child that does have to face a trial some months or years down the road, the center strongly recommends counseling, and according to the director that doesn't mean just sitting and talking. The center tries to come up with other ways for children to cope with their trauma with activities such as drawing and coloring. If the child seems to be dealing well with the trauma, a break will be taken until the trial date is close so that the child does not have to be reminded of the incident every week.

&uot;I have been really amazed at how resilient children are. When they have experienced this and suffered, they are very adamant about the truth to come forward and they want to get it right. If something isn't quite right, they will correct you,&uot; she explained.

The goal of the center is to be a safe place for Butler County children, and they often conduct fundraisers to help children throughout the county. This Thursday, the center will have box lunches on sale that will include chicken salad on fresh baked rolls, a bag of chips, a fresh fruit bowl and homemade poundcake for $6. All proceeds will benefit the Advocacy Center. For more information on the lunch or on the center, call 382-8584.