Dickinson, Iron counties secure grant for Child Advocacy Center

A PANEL DISCUSSES the state grant recently awarded to provide a Child Advocacy Center for Dickinson and Iron counties. From left are family court Judge Thomas Slagel; Dickinson County Sheriff Scott Rutter; Marti Swisher, Victims of Crime Act program manager; Cheryl O’Neil, executive director of Caring House; Heidi VanSlooten, Dickinson/Iron Friend of the Court; Lisa Richards, Dickinson County prosecuting attorney; Paul Campbell and Geno Basanese of the Michigan State Police; and Bob Sauld, Caring House board member. (Theresa Proudfit photo)

IRON MOUNTAIN — Caring House Inc. Executive Director Cheryl O’Neil says she “let out a scream” when she heard her dream of a local Child Advocacy Center was coming true.

A grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Division of Victim Services will allow Caring House to set up a center to provide support and other services for abused children in Dickinson and Iron counties.

“To say we were over-the-moon excited doesn’t even cover it. Child victims so often have to go through a horrendous process through the criminal justice system, and (now) they will not be alone,” O’Neil said. “There will be someone to advocate on their behalf but also to provide therapy for the entire family.”

No information was available yet on when the center might open or where it will be located, though it will be in Dickinson County, which has more need for such services, officials said. But Iron County families unable to afford the expense of transporting a child to the center can obtain a gas voucher for appointments, the group said.

Caring House started taking the first steps toward a Child Advocacy Center this spring by developing a forensic interview room — a safe, comfortable and neutral space for law enforcement and Child Protective Services to interview victims. The aim was to lessen the trauma children experience when talking with adults about the abuse as well as eliminating the need for multiple interviews.

“As a prosecutor, we often times feel as though victims of physical and sexual abuse are re-victimized by having to go through the court process. This is especially true for children, and in large measure, the rules regarding evidence and procedure are the same in court regardless if the victim is an adult or child,” Dickinson County Prosecutor Lisa Richards noted.

Caring House secured a grant from the Superior Health Foundation to purchase the necessary equipment for the interview room. Caring House’s Resource Center administrative offices were chosen as the site, as the building has 24-hour, seven-days-a-week accessibility.

The site also can provide an advocate/counselor if needed.

The new Child Advocacy Center will be at a different location than the interview room, so the child won’t have to revisit a site that might have painful associations.

“It’s hard enough for adult victims to have to go through the court process, let alone very young children. So the addition of a child advocacy center in our community is a step forward in reducing the fear and anxiety that children experience around going to court,” Richards said.

The project will follow the National Children’s Advocacy Centers’ team model, in which representatives from various disciplines work together to investigate, prosecute and treat child abuse in a way that avoids potentially causing any further harm to the victim.

“For law enforcement, it is imperative that we have something like this. It adds a lot of consistency to our investigations for the prosecutor’s office, but more importantly than being a resource for us, it’s for the families of the victims,” said Commander Paul Campbell of the Michigan State Police Department.

The project will cost $184,370, with 90 percent covered by the grant and the other 10 percent being paid in matching volunteer work hours.

“A portion of this grant requires volunteers, and we are asking our community if you have a heart for children, a heart for victims of crime, please call the Caring House,” O’Neil said. “We will set you up with training, talk to you about what it looks like. It may be somebody sitting in the courtroom with a child to make sure the child feels supported.”

Added Heidi Vanslooten, the Dickinson/Iron Friend of the Court: “Often the families that are involved in these cases are also families that are involved in both offices, and so it nice to have that outlet and extra assistance for them and I’m extremely happy that it is including both counties.”

Caring House now is recruiting volunteers to assist in the project. For more information, call the Caring House at 906-774-1337.

“I don’t think there is any question that children are the most un-represented folks in the justice system, whether it be criminal proceeding or civil proceeding,” family court Judge Thomas Slagel said. “Having an advocacy center to help them through this process and be a consistent and ongoing presence for them will be an added plus for the children.”