Child Advocacy Center of Rutherford and Cannon Counties employee Jennifer Gambill talks with a parent June 11, 2012 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP Photo/M. Willard)
Editor’s note: This is the final article in a three-part series on child sexual abuse. Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the victims and their families.
After a grandfather became suspicious of a close male relative’s alleged abuse of his granddaughter, the Child Advocacy Center of Rutherford and Cannon Counties helped document the crime.
John Alfred fought to bring his granddaughter, Linda, back to Tennessee when his daughter expressed concerns about her husband’s relationship with his step-daughter.
Since then, Linda’s mother has recanted her original concerns, but it was enough for Alfred to fight to bring his granddaughter home to Tennessee and begin an investigation of the crimes allegedly committed. The case is currently under investigation so their names have been changed.
The CAC helped Alfred’s family and other victims of child sexual abuse by both helping in law enforcement investigations and giving continuing services and counseling after the abuse is uncovered.
“When a child goes through this they are embarrassed. …” Alfred said. “The CAC helped us through this.”
The CAC helped by proving a friendly atmosphere where children feel comfortable enough to share their deepest secrets. Often abusers tell their victims to keep it a secret or something terrible could happen, explained Sharon DeBoer, executive director of the CAC.
“It’s really important to us that we do not send children to homes they are not safe in,” DeBoer said, “and it’s equally important that we do not have false allegations.”
The CAC does this by conducting legally defensible and objective forensic interview, which is available to law enforcement, the district attorney and defense attorneys.
Forensic interviews are the first step in most child protective services cases. During the interview, a specially trained social worker, like CAC social worker LaToya Nelson, questions a child to try to determine if any abuse or neglect has occurred.
In Linda’s case, Nelson did like she does in all cases.
She builds a rapport with the child, assesses them according to their age and gets general background information. Nelson even checks to see if the child knows the difference between the truth and lies before she talks about the alleged abuse.
“My heart broke for her … She had to give details,” Alfred said about Linda having to relive the abuse during the interview.
But because of the atmosphere created at the CAC and the relationship she built with Nelson, Linda felt comfortable enough to divulge her deepest secret.
Before the CAC was created 15 years ago, social workers and law enforcement would interview victims at the Murfreesboro Police Department, Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office or in their principal’s office at school.
“The victims would think they were in trouble,” DeBoer said.
“It is a pleasure to have that child-friendly atmosphere and not have to bring them to this institutionalize place where they are fearful or uncomfortable, where it just feels dirty, compared to the CAC, where it feels like a home,” Sheriff’s Detective Lisa McCallum said.
In the years since its creation, the CAC has become the neutral ground where law enforcement, the Tennessee Department of Children Services and the justice system meet in child abuse and neglect cases. In all, the CAC has helped investigate and prosecute more than 7,500 child abuse, sexual abuse and drug-endangered cases in Rutherford and Cannon counties.
“Fifteen years ago, law enforcement didn’t cooperate with DCS and DCS didn’t cooperate with law enforcement … often times crippling the investigations,” said Detective Sgt. Mickey McCullough, who is the commander of the Sheriff’s Office Family Crimes and Special Victims Unit.
DeBoer said she was warned in the beginning that the different agencies did not get along well, but in the intervening years, they’ve all come to realize they are working toward the same goal – keeping children safe.
McCullough explained investigators and social workers can work together with forensic interviewer even though the have different protocols.
“They work to protect the child,” he said, “and we work to convict the offender.”
The Sheriff’s detectives agreed having a common ground has helped in investigations.
“It’s difficult to sit in an interview and think at the same time. So, it’s nice to be able to sit and watch and take notes,” McCallum said, adding it is hard to stay objective when you hear a child talk about sexual abuse.
But it’s something that must be done to combat the sexual abuse of children.
During the whole process, Alfred said the counselors and staff at the CAC were very supportive and helped the whole family.
The friendly atmosphere was helped by Murfreesboro Police Detective Tommy Roberts, Alfred said, who played games with Linda to keep her relaxed and calm before she was interviewed.
“You can’t believe the rage; the complete rage that came out of her,” Alfred said about Linda’s reaction during and after a forensic interview was conducted.
And now, she can begin healing, he said, because of the Child Advocacy Center.