Children's Cove

By Frannie Carr

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

Child sexual abuse can happen anywhere at anytime. According to the National Children's Advocacy Center, one in eight children are abused by the time they're eighteen. And few of them will ever even report the abuse. Historically, if a child did disclose that "something happened," the initial confession was just the beginning. They would be made to explain the incident, recounting it, again and again, for law enforcement, doctors, district attorneys, and social services officials. Children's Advocacy Centers or CACs like Children's Cove in Barnstable have changed all that. Their objective is to reduce the trauma an abused child experiences.

Four years ago, Katie had a normal life. She was a twenty-four-year-old mother of three. She and her husband had recently purchased a home in the Barnstable area. Their oldest daughter had just started elementary school, the youngest was still in diapers and their dog was named after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. They were just a normal family. Then one day, everything changed.

Katie: "We were actually in the car, we were driving to ballet. I had picked my oldest daughter up from school. My in-laws were due to come and visit. It was thanksgiving time. I had mentioned that my husband's brother maybe coming with my mother and father in-law and that's when my daughter kind of freaked out and screamed and cried and said, "Don't you remember, he showed me his privates?" and that's when I knew that something had happened. I didn't know what to do or anything like that."

The next day, Katie called her daughter's school and they lead her to the Children's Cove. The Cove is a freestanding, child-friendly facility designed to provide and coordinate services to child sexual abuse victims and their families. Katie and her husband didn't know what to expect. Like most families, they had no frame of reference.

Katie: "I didn't know if these people were gonna think it was our fault. That we let him in our house, that we let him stay with us. I didn't know if they were going to take her away or the other kids. The unknown was so scary. But when we got there, it was so different, it was a cozy little house and they were so friendly."

The Children's Cove website lists it's address as a post office box in Barnstable. The actual address is undisclosed to protect the safety of the children. I was given directions to the facility and asked to keep them quiet. When I arrived a few days later, I thought I had gone too far. The driveway was long and winding but eventually I saw it. The building was small and unmarked. The jungle gym and swing set in the side yard gave it the look of a home. I rang the bell and a moment later was greeted by the Cove's newly appointed director, Stacy Gallagher. She gave me a tour of the house. It began in the stairwell that leads to the interview rooms. It's painted bright yellow and decorated with hundreds of colorful handprints, ranging from tiny to small.

Stacy Gallagher: "This is a wall where children, after they're interviewed or after they're seen here, they can leave their handprint on the wall with paint. So, this kind of represents most of the children who have come through Children's Cove."

Once a child discloses the abuse, the cove will organize what they call a forensic or investigative interview with the child.

Stacy Gallagher: "And this is the forensic interview room where the forensic interviewer sits with just the child. There's a one-way mirror that the child can't see through. And on the other side is the observation room where law enforcement, DSS, any hospital representatives, anyone else involved with the case sits and observes the interview and they can hear the interview being done. It's obviously uncomfortable for a child to talk about. But we kind of let them take their time and tell what happened. And for the most part they're comfortable here. It's a child friendly atmosphere."

After the interview, if it's necessary, the child will undergo a medical examination. The cove has it's own on-site medical suite on the second floor where the exam is conducted. Kathleen Ecker is the resident nurse examiner.

Kathleen Ecker: "We can get forensic evidence for years after an incident has taken place. Depending on the type of injury the child sustained. Just like your skin tells a story, you have your scars on your knee from when you fell off your bike when you were a child, we can get that type of evidence."

Ecker says that while the physical evidence can corroborate a charge in court, the child's statement is ultimately the most important thing.

Kathleen Ecker: "The youngest child I've examined here at Children's Cove is four months old. So we do have situations where a child can't give a verbal statement and we know something's happened to them. And in those cases, in a pre-verbal child, the physical evidence is going to be very important."

After the interview and the examination, the Cove will set up short-term clinical counseling services for the children and families. After that, they provide information and consultation about the investigation and legal process ahead. For many families it can be a long and confusing road.

It's been four years since Katie's daughter came forward but for a number of reasons, including the fact that he was minor when the incident occurred and the fact that he lives out of state, her abuser has never been formally charged with the crime.

Katie: "You know and I just get really angry that we're here and we're doing what we need to do and we went to the Children's Cove and all this stuff and then it comes down to the legal system. "

Children's Cove conducts one-to-two interviews per day and last year served three hundred and sixteen children and families. They've identified a way to reduce the trauma and for each one of those three hundred plus children, it's made a difference.

For more information about Children's Cove, call 508-375-0410

Broadcast September 14, 2006

Frannie Carr reports for WCAI, the Cape & Islands NPR stations.