WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Seated on a child-sized chair, Brooke Martin looks right at home.

That’s intentional, she said.

Martin is a social worker with the Walla Walla office of Child Protective Services. While her office is under the umbrella of Washington state’s Division of Children and Family Services, she works in the Walla Walla Police Department’s headquarters right next to a child-friendly forensic interview room.

That’s the spot where most troubled kids 13 and younger in Walla Walla County end up talking about things that are hard to talk about. Even Martin’s cabinet of puzzles, books and games can be of little solace for children who talk to her about instances of abuse, violence and neglect at home.

Having this specially designed space — complete with bright colors, artsy walls, one-way glass and cameras — is one of the building blocks needed to create a unified approach to child abuse in the Walla Walla Valley, said Deborah Peters.

Peters is coordinator for a newly collaborative effort in the Walla Walla area that aims to help abused, neglected and exploited children and their families get faster, more focused services. It’s not that services haven’t been in place, but they haven’t always been applied in a best-practice method or in ways that helped kids the most, Peters said last week.

Called the Children’s Advocacy Team, representatives from 13 local social service and government agencies have been meeting since late September to begin putting together components of a more effective and child-centered system to investigating cases of abuse and more.

AVOIDING RETRAUMA

Right now, things work in a fragmented way, Peters explained.

“We’re not set up to talk to each other,” she said of the various Walla Walla providers charged with keeping kids safe.

For example, “Emily,” 5, goes to school and tells her teacher she is being hurt at home. That means talking to not only her teacher, but probably the principal and the school nurse.

The school calls a child-abuse hotline and local law enforcement. Emily talks to the police officer, who may take her to the hospital.

There Emily is examined by a doctor, who talks to the little girl. A nurse and social worker also ask Emily questions, along with a detective who gets assigned the case.

Before the case really gets started, Emily will talk to a child protection investigator, counselor and a lawyer assigned to represent her.

Each retelling of the worst time of her young life carries the potential of re-traumatizing Emily. And while some kids are able to clearly explain the incident or recount a history of abuse, some are not, Martin said.

1 IN 4 KIDS

Although not every allegation of abuse is found to be true, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says as many as 25 percent of American children will experience some form of significant mistreatment. In that group, about 80 percent will suffer serious neglect, 18 percent will be physically abused and 9 percent sexually abused.

Nearly 90 percent of these children are related to their abusers and 79 percent of abuse-related child fatalities involve infants or toddlers, according to the CDC.

In the Walla Walla area in 2016, officials opened 428 child-abuse cases — usually involving more than one child — 233 of which were investigated for abuse or neglect. Out of 134 completed investigations, 37 were found to be true.

In some cases, however, even without a concrete finding of abuse, children who request removal are taken out of homes considered unsafe, Peters said, quoting numbers from Child Protective Services.

A NEW MODEL

The Child Advocacy Team, which operates under the umbrella of Children’s Home Society of Washington, is intended to make a much smoother path for all the Emilys.

With a new model of intervention, Emily discloses abuse to her teacher. The case gets referred to Peters’ team of two dozen specialists, which includes pediatric behavioral health workers, counselors, law enforcement officials, doctors and nurses, child protection staff and public health employees.

But Emily and her (non-abusive) family member will only have to talk to three people; a family advocate, a doctor and a trained interviewer who will take notes while a detective, child-protection worker and attorney observe and listen behind two-way glass. Like the one in Martin’s interview room at the police department.

Emily then gets a referral to a counselor to help her heal, Peters said.

When a child suffers neglect or abuse, responders have a responsibility to respond quickly and appropriately, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice. And that’s what the Walla Walla team is aiming for, she said, adding that having a communitywide, standard protocol will not only improve outcomes for victims, but put Walla Walla in a good spot to consider development of a one-stop children’s advocacy center.

Peters said such a center is a dedicated facility staffed with specialists who can offer children and their non-offending family members wrap-around services — such as preparation for court and therapy — in a comfortable and safe-feeling atmosphere.

FAMILY NAVIGATORS KEY

Perhaps the most important piece of a child advocacy center will be the family navigator, she said. Those employees attach to a case right from the start, making sure a child and his or her safe family members get steered into services.

Basically, that advocate is the “T” crosser and the “I” dotter, Peters said, sticking to a family “like glue.”

Studies show most kids can get back to being kids faster with a team approach to allegations of abuse. With agreed-upon and collective action, every agency will have the map for what step to take and when, she noted.

“So, for instance, after we’ve finalized our protocol, we could have conversations with the school district and say, ‘OK, if a child discloses to a teacher, we don’t want to have that teacher question the child. Instead, help that child feel safe.'”

People have the best of intention is these cases but not everyone is trained in gathering forensic evidence. And when a child-abuse victim relives his or her experience through retelling, it’s inviting new trauma each time, Peters said.

And if children clam up, there can go the only real evidence in a case, Martin pointed out.

The National Children’s Alliance recommends kids have a safe place, such as an advocacy center to talk to trained professionals and get on the road to help and health as fast as possible.

Like Peters and others, Martin wants the same thing. That’s why she explains just where the cameras in her special interview room are, and who might be hanging out behind the funny glass window. It’s why she sits in a chair designed for children, under the birch tree decals with bluebirds that appear to grow on the walls.

That room, created when the police station was built in 2012, is proof of Walla Walla’s investment in kids’ safety, Peters and Martin said.

“The great thing about this team work is it is really happening at a community level,” Peter said. “That’s the part I find really powerful about it.”


Information from: Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, http://www.union-bulletin.com