LIFESTYLE

Over the Rainbow Children’s Advocacy Center serves abused children

PAT FRIDGEN, Echo Pilot
Dianne Kelso and Becky Voss will assist children who have been victims of sexual abuse. The center will serve Franklin County.

An abused child has already gone through major trauma. Telling grownups about it should not cause more mental distress.

In an effort to spare children the need to tell multiple persons about an experience, Over the Rainbow Children’s Advocacy Center has opened for Franklin County’s youngest victims. Located at 1461 S. Main St., Chambersburg, it is a non-profit referral agency that will be utilized by area law enforcement and child welfare agencies.

Traditionally, if a child tells a teacher or responsible adult about an abuse incident, he or she may have to talk about it again to as many as 15 different people. And go to several places, such as the principal’s office, police station, social worker’s office, hospital, lawyer’s office and counseling site. Now information is gathered in one place with one interview.

“Everything is centered around the child,” said CAC executive director Dianne Kelso. “Every entity comes to the child, who talks to one person, the forensic interviewer.”

The other involved parties watch the live videotaped conversation on a screen from another room. DVD recordings are made for future reference.

Becky Voss interviews the children. She has a B.S. in social work and is a graduate student. She previously worked at the Adams County Children’s Advocacy Center in Gettysburg. She is also certified in Child First, using the CornerHouse model of forensic interviewing. The industry-respected style assesses child sexual abuse and coordinates services for multidisciplinary entities.

Over the Rainbow had its first client last Oct. 30.

The center

The Children’s Advocacy Center is decorated in white, but each room has one wall in a bold color of purple, blue, yellow or red. Carpet softens the sterility of many formal institutions. Comfy chairs in the interview room and reception area take the place of folding chairs. Children waiting to be called, or their families, have access to books and toys.

Children appearing for a forensic interview will also be given a forensic medical exam, with a nurse on call for that purpose.

“It’s a much less anxious environment here,” said Kelso.

While collecting physical evidence frequently is not possible, due to the amount of time that has passed, she said the value was also that the youngsters would be told they were okay. They would receive psychological and emotional assurance that the abuse was not their fault, and they were normal.

The CAC was not an investigative agency, Kelso stressed.

“Our service is on behalf of the child. We are a neutral entity.”

She wanted the public to understand they should not report cases of abuse there, but to call police, Franklin County Children and Youth, or Child Line. As a referral agency, however, if someone stopped in, staff would direct them to the proper channels.

No one can predict how many children will be served annually, but the center in Adams County had 550 clients in its first five years.

The board of directors consists of Fogal as president, Doug Amsley from Children and Youth, Dave Bishop, Cindy Adams, Alice Hawbaker, Natalie Lehman, Jerrold Sulcove, Dave Rush and Tiffany Bloyer.

The support

A Children’s Advocacy Center had been on people’s minds for a long time, but the momentum peaked at the end of 2013. Franklin County District Attorney Matt Fogal was credited by many as the driving force for getting the project off the ground. A local center would mean children no longer had to go to Adams County for service.

Funding was lined up through grants, with the county sometimes serving as the middleman. The Chambersburg Exchange Club contributed a substantial amount of money early on, Kelso said. Money has come from other organizations, people and sources.

Ongoing funding will come from the Department of Public Welfare, grants, fundraising efforts and donations, which Kelso is confident will come in as Franklin County residents take ownership of the center. The leased building was formerly a chiropractic office.

Fogal came up with the name.

“It’s from the song ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, of course,” he said. “The children are the bluebirds, coming from a bad place to a better place.”

He and Kelso were excited the doors were open. Both agreed all agencies involved in investigating child abuse did their jobs well, but the one location was optimal.

“It’s a safe landing place for these little ones,” Fogal said.

Kelso, retired from Chambersburg Police Department after 28 years, still remembers the face of every child she helped.

“It’s almost as if I was preparing for this job.”