Center aims to help child victims

Facility will be used to conduct interviews

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec Forensic interviewer Jackie Bevan (left) talks with Ashley Owens, program director in a room where law enforcement can watch an interview take place on a monitor.

Investigating and stopping the abuse and neglect of children in Blair County is not an easy task, but with the addition of Blair County’s Child Advocacy Center on Howard Avenue, the process can now be less traumatic for the young victims.

The Center for Child Justice welcomed guests Friday at its open house, the culmination of years of work to get a center up and running so that children have a neutral, non-threatening place where they can be examined and speak with a trained forensic interviewer if abuse, neglect or exploitation is suspected.

A mural bursting with color dominates the waiting room at the center, where books and toys belie the tragic purpose of the center: to help investigators get the truth from children about abuse without putting the child through additional stress or harm and while also not doing anything to influence their stories or taint the investigation.

“The whole point of the interview is for everything to stay neutral and let the child tell their story,” said CAC Program Director Ashley Owens. Owens pointed out that while the hallways of the center are decorated with artwork from local artists, the interview room’s walls are bare and, while comfortable, devoid of anything such as cartoon characters or anything else that could creep into a child’s imagination and become part of his or her story.

Jackie Bevan, along with Owens, has been trained to conduct forensic interviews with children using a protocol developed by the National Children’s Advocacy Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Bevan said the process has changed dramatically since the cases associated with the day-care child abuse hysteria of the 1980s, when poor techniques and coercion led to wrongful convictions of people falsely accused of sometimes fantastic ritual child abuse, such as the McMartin pre-school in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Bevan said today’s techniques are neutral and letting the children talk. She said she has very little information about the allegations before she interviews a child, and that is by design so as to not introduce anything into the conversation that would taint what the child has to say. The less she talks, the better, Bevan said, and when she does ask a question, it’s open-ended. If the child does not introduce a subject into the conversation, she won’t introduce the subject either.

“The whole goal of the forensic interview is to be non-biased, non-leading and non-suggestive,” Bevan said Friday. “It’s really gathering the facts in their own words.”

Owens said the center will help families and investigators get justice for the children in the least intrusive way. In the interview room, there is a small table for a child and some comfortable chairs, but it’s a room designed for two.

Cameras and computers allow police officers, Children, Youth & Families case workers, prosecutors and others involved in the investigation to watch and listen while the child talks to the interviewer — in real time.

When it is over, copies of the video can be burned to a disc immediately for investigators.

“It’s good because all involved can be here and do only one interview,” Owens said. “It saves the child from having to go through it over and over.”

The center also has a medical examination room where a child can be examined by a UPMC Altoona physicians assistant for physical evidence of abuse. The room looks like any other examination room, except for the colposcope — which allows the close examination for sexual and physical abuse through magnification along with a built-in camera to document the evidence, Owens pointed out.

Under the umbrella of Family Services Inc. in a office space donated by UPMC Altoona, the center’s opening earlier this month will make a world of difference in investigating these types of crimes, Altoona police Detective Lt. Ben Jones said. Until now, the closest center was in Centre County, meaning families had to travel — which is not always easy and can add more stress on the child, Jones said.

“It takes the stress off the families and the child,” Jones said, adding that the Altoona police have been thankful to the State College Children’s Advocacy Center for all its staff has done for them over the years.

Now, with a center in Altoona, children won’t even have to come into the Altoona Police Department — which can be intimidating for children — and instead can be referred directly to the advocacy center.

Jones said there is a back entrance to the center for law enforcement and prosecutors so the children won’t see them.

The idea is to not influence what the child will say so as not to taint the investigation while also making the process less troublesome and stressful for the kids, Jones said.

“Any tool we have close to home is a benefit to the community,” Jones said. “We appreciate the people who worked so hard to make this happen.”

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.