Community salutes new Child Advocacy Center
When people hear horror stories about the sexual, physical or mental abuse of children, they rarely equate them with the affluent communities of Fairfield County.
It's easier to believe these things happen "not in my neighborhood," according to members of the Multidisciplinary Team of Greater Norwalk, who provide support services to abused children and their families.
The team, which includes the state Department of Children and Families, local law enforcement officials from five municipalities, medical personnel, representatives of the judicial system, and other community members, came together on Oct. 12 to celebrate the official launch of Children's Connection's new Child Advocacy Center, one of seven fully accredited CACs in the state.
Children's Connection is a program of the Human Services Council, and is housed in HSC's lower level at One Park Street in Norwalk. It provides services to child-abuse victims and their families from the communities of Norwalk, Westport, Weston, New Canaan and Wilton -- "Towns where you don't think these things happen," said Catherine McGrath, acting director of development for the Human Services Council.
A donation from Sequel International of Norwalk provided the funding for the relocation of Children's Connection from two rooms on the first floor of the HSC to five rooms in the basement of the same building, and renovation of that new, larger and more private space.
Kari Pesavento, director of Children's Connection and coordinator of the multidisciplinary team, said the old space was functional, but not very friendly or comforting and not private at all. In the previous space, people arriving for interviews, counseling or meetings related to abuse issues had to walk down a public hallway to get to the office.
"We needed a space that would allow our families the confidentiality they deserved when dealing with these difficult issues," Pesavento said. "It's a hard thing for children to talk about. It's a hard thing for adults to deal with. If we can provide a safe and comfortable environment for them then the healing can begin."
Some of the children have already given their approval of the new space and advocacy center. Pesavento said she often finds notes left behind by children. Two, in particular, spell out their level of comfort. "I love this place," one read, and another said simply, "Can I come back?"
Carol Smith-Harker, a forensic interviewer, said the new space "provides privacy for the family because it's away from other offices and hallway traffic. When a family has been traumatized, privacy really helps."
In the new space, there are no distractions, no noise from other offices. Since the new center opened in April, Smith-Harker said the whole feel of the interview from the time the child arrives to the time they leave is less interruptive, less distractive. It's all focused on the child, because the experience of sexual, physical or mental abuse is traumatic for a child. It should not be compounded by the fear that someone else might hear a secret they are disclosing.
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The new center has a child-friendly waiting area with age- and developmentally appropriate toys and games, which help because children sometimes arrive at the center anxious, Smith-Harker said. The waiting room gives them a chance to play and get comfortable in the surroundings.
"We want it to be a safe and comfortable environment for them," said Smith-Harker, one of about 50 people who attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new center. The ceremony, which also celebrated the recent re-accreditation of Children's Connection by the National Children's Alliance, also was attended by Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia, state Sen. Bob Duff, and Norwalk Public Schools superintendent Susan Marks.
"It used to be a much smaller venue. It now allows more treatment options and to handle the increasing case load," Weston Police Sgt. Matt Brodacki said.
According to figures provided by Children's Connection, research suggests that one in four girls and one in seven boys will be the victim of some type of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday.
Children's Connection serves about 8,000 people, mostly children, each year. Pesavento said there are more than 300 new cases of abuse each year in the five-town region.
Pesavento said the new space has a forensic interview room, observation room and a parents' room, where they can meet separately with counselors and child advocates from the Sexual Assault Crisis Center. It's also a place where parents can meet the members of the team and provide more information. No parents or non-investigative people are allowed in the interview room.
Pesavento is developing a resource library for parents and a lending library, and she plans to conduct workshops for parents so the center can become "a place that parents can come, not just in that moment of crisis."
During the ribbon-cutting, an exclusive jewelry line designed by Agabhumi, the Best of Bali, which has stores in Stamford and Westport, was introduced by Regina Maguire Kirshbaum. Buy any piece from this line and 40 percent of the proceeds will go to Children's Connection. To view and purchase this line, go to http://www.agabhumi.com/pdshop/shop/category.aspx?catid=3.
If someone suspects a child is being abused they should call their local police department or the Child Abuse Hotline at 800-842-2288. For information about Children's Connection or to make a donation, call Kari Pesavento at 203-849-1111, ext. 3011, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.