Douglas County's youngest victims of sexual and physical abuse will soon get the help they need.
A major hurdle in funding for a Child Advocacy Center for Douglas County was overcome as of Tuesday afternoon, when it was announced that the county had been awarded a Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant.
The VOCA grant comes through the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), which administers federal funds. This fund is financed by fines and penalties paid by convicted federal offenders, not from tax dollars.
The VOCA grant goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2018.
Maj. Bobby Holmes with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, who serves as chairman of the Douglas County Task Force on Family Violence, made the announcement Wednesday to loud applause and excitement by its members.
“This is going to be huge,” said Holmes. “We hope to get it up and running by the first of the year. This was definitely a community effort.”
Douglas County District Attorney Brian Fortner announced plans in June to have a Child Advocacy Center in Douglas County in place before the end of this year, during a meeting of the Douglas County Task Force on Family Violence.
According to the National Children’s Alliance, a Child Advocacy Center is a child-friendly facility in which law enforcement, child protection, prosecution, mental health, medical and victim advocacy professionals work together to investigate abuse, help children heal from abuse and hold offenders accountable.
“It’s time we stop ignoring the problem of child abuse in Douglas County,” said Barbara Hogan, director of the Douglas County Task Force,“because it makes us too uncomfortable to think about. We have to understand we have a real problem with child abuse as reflected in the stats from the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and we must all do something about it.”
Statistics provided in June by Kay Wimpy, director of Douglas County DFCS, confirm the gravity of the county’s physical and sexual abuse.
The United States Census Bureau estimates in 2015 the total population of Douglas County was 140,733 and 26.7 percent, or more than 37,500 children, were under the age of 18 years old. The Douglas County DFCS statistics reveal in 2016 there were 1,840 reports of child maltreatment, in 2015 there were 1,902 reports and 2014 a total of 1,742 cases were reported.
“Children living in Douglas County where no child advocacy services are available face having to tell the worst story of their life over and over again to doctors, police lawyers, therapists, investigators, judges, school counselors and DFCS,” said Hogan. “Once the investigation is over, they may not get the help they need to heal.”
“This has been a dream, a vision,” said Fortner. “Everyone will agree we need this in Douglas County. The last 15 years we’ve talked about a Child Advocacy Center. We’ve outgrown our resources and we need to take action. The answers are not just in prosecuting people — we need to make sure we provide the best services available for our children. If we aren’t doing what we can to give them what they need, we are not doing our job.”
He said, “I am so excited that our effort to bring a child advocacy center to the citizens of Douglas County is finally paying off. This is something that every single person in our community should be happy about.”
Last week, Fortner and his team attended a meeting of the CJCC for the vote on the grant.
“As I sat there with Barbara Hogan and Bobby Holmes, I could barely contain my excitement as they approved our plan,” Fortner said. “That is because I know what it actually means for our community. Soon, our children who have been physically and sexually abused will finally have the treatment and support they need during one of the toughest experiences of their life.”
A short-term housing solution for the Child Advocacy Center has been offered by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, where offices are available on the facility’s third floor. In fact, a child-friendly room has been already been set up to interview young victims, according to Holmes. He said they would try to get another room for those children a little bit older.
This, however, is only a temporary measure until a permanent facility can be located and funded.
“In order to not be delayed, we will go ahead with the center,” Homes said. “Our ultimate goal is to have a free-standing Child Advocacy Center. In the meantime, we will work with what we have.”
Hogan said, “Having the Child Advocacy Center at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is not the ideal place, but to get it up and running until we find a place, it will work for us.”
She said that they already have two forensic interviewers on staff and one of them speaks Spanish.
What is needed is to hire registered nurses as sexual assault nurse examiners — and Hogan said anyone interested should apply.
The Douglas County Task Force on Family Violence was founded in 1994 and became a 501(c)3 organization in 2000. Hogan said that since that time, the task force continues to work with more than 25 agencies in the community as they provide strategic planning to promote a coordinated community response to domestic violence.
The task force also provides non-shelter services for victims of domestic violence in need of protective orders and emotional support. In addition, the task force operates a Sexual Assault Center where on-site forensic medical examinations are performed by Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners and advocates who meet the emotional needs of victims.