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Center serves young victims

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The ongoing work of the Children's Center of the Ozarks through its Monett office, serving Barry and Lawrence counties, provides a central location for law enforcement and therapeutic responses to abuse against children.
The Monett office of the Children's Center of the Ozarks has seen fluctuations in the number of children receiving service for abuse.

The Children's Center provides a single location where young victims of abuse can meet with advocates, undergo medical exams and tell what happened. A recording of the interview is distributed to different law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, relieving victims from the trauma of repeatedly reliving the experience.

According to Rebecca Anderson, children's advocate, the office in Monett, which serves Barry and Lawrence counties, saw 137 children in 2010, a drop of 33 from 2009 and the lowest number since 2007.

The respite seems to have only been temporary, Anderson said. For the last two years, the center has handled 35 children during the first quarter of the year. In 2011, the Monett office had 67 cases, nearly doubling the caseload and making up for the overall drop in 2010. Most of the increases came in sexual abuse cases.

The Children's Center's other offices in Joplin, Nevada and Butler also experienced a general drop in case numbers during 2010. Anderson said the recent upswing in children served reflected the cyclical nature of the problem.

"I wish I could say abuse was decreasing, but I don't think that's the case," Anderson said.

The 120 interviews conducted in 2010 were 32 less than the previous year, while the 69 medical exams reflected an increase of 13, the highest number in four years. Sixty-nine percent of the cases involved girls, a 3 percent drop from 2010, leaving the highest percentage of cases involving boys in four years.

There were 137 abuse cases, 128 of which involved sexual abuse and nine involving physical abuse. Sexual abuse reflected a drop in 32 cases while physical abuse was down by 33 percent. There were no cases of neglect or drug endangerment. Anderson said there were also no cases of children witnessing abuse, a drop from 12 cases from the previous year.

Children of Caucasian heritage still make up 95 percent of the cases, which has been the historic pattern. The remaining 5 percent have involved Hispanics for the past two years.

A major shift in the numbers surfaced in the ages of the children served. The number of cases involving children age 6 and under rose from 38 percent to 43 percent, while the cases involving children ages 7 to 12 dropped from 35 percent to 28 percent. The percentage of older children remained about the same.

Information about offenders shifted to a 10 percent increase in the number of unknown offenders. The percentage of parents responsible for abuse dropped by 7 percent while other relatives involved declined only slightly.

"The type of cases we see typically are the same from year to year," Anderson said.

Funding remains a major challenge for the Children's Center. Anderson said the source of money paying for the local professional counselor ran out two weeks ago, causing the discontinuation of that service. Around 25 percent of the victims utilize the counselor, she said, though counseling is recommended for all the children.

Although the Children's Center in Monett is centrally located for the Barry and Lawrence counties, its location nonetheless provides distance issues for some of the victims, particularly from families with limited resources.

In some cases, families may not have access to Medicaid to help pay for counseling. The center then helps families find the resources to get the help they need.

"The need is always going to be there," Anderson said.

The majority of cases referred to the Monett office have continued to come from the Barry County Sheriff's Department. In 2010, 41 cases came through the Sheriff's Department, down one from the previous year. The second highest number, 21, came from both the Lawrence County Sheriff's Department and the Monett Police Department, each down slightily from 2009.

The biggest change came in the 33 percent drop in cases referred from Lawrence County law enforcement agencies other than the Sheriff's Department. Other Barry County agencies have referred only two cases a year for the last two years.

Anderson has served as child advocate at the Monett office for almost three years. Some of the cases she first worked on are now working their way to the trial phase.

"It's hard for kids to move on till they have closure," Anderson said. "There's no closure when they have to keep talking about it and relive it. The whole purpose of the Children's Center is to help children from repeatedly reliving their story during the investigative period. That still doesn't prevent them from having to go to court."

Even with a three-year wait, the value of the Children's Center can be seen.

"We have one case that's scheduled for a trial in December that took place in May 2008," Anderson said. "She [the victim] has been able to move on, graduate high school, get married and have a baby. She and the entire family went through counseling here. I know that helped a lot."

Anderson said upgrading and redecorating at the Monett office was completed during the past year. The interview room was redone and equipment upgraded to place all interviews on DVDs. Some equipment in the medical room has been upgraded as well.

Help provided by the Cassville High School art club in redecorating the medical room from a clinical white to an underwater scene has provided children with a friendly, less threatening setting. Anderson said District Five of Future Business Leaders of America has donated a supply of crayons, coloring books, snacks and games, plus hygiene products like combs and toothpaste.

"It's things we can send home with the kids," Anderson said. "It makes everything here less difficult. We're so appreciative of that."

The impact of losing the counselor has not yet sunk in, Anderson said. She is starting to get calls from families asking what to do.

Anderson expects services at the Monett office will continue much as they have in past years. The center contracts with two people to conduct interviews and two medical providers to conduct exams as needed. Anderson is the only full-time person at the office.

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