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Center acts on behalf of abused children

Before 2006, criminal investigations stemming from suspected child sexual abuse were cumbersome, often mishandled and a nightmare for the victims.

Then, a victim had to talk to 15 people before a case was ready for prosecution. It usually started by the child telling his or her teacher that he or she was being hurt at home, followed by the principal and school nurse, who examined the student. A police officer was next, followed by a nurse, social worker and medical doctor. He or she also had to talk to a counselor, followed by a visit to a hospital where he or she talked to another nurse and social workers and a doctor conducted another examination. Lastly, he or she had to talk to a child protection investigator and a lawyer.

Today, the victim talks to only three people, thanks to the Morgan County Child Advocacy Center. The victim relates his or her experience to an advocacy center interviewer while a detective, DHR worker and district attorney listen and watch in another room. The victim is allowed to see a medical doctor and his or her mom talks to an advocate to help her understand the system and is referred to a counselor, who will help the child heal.

Sexual abuse victims are referred to the center by the Morgan County Department of Human Resources and Law enforcement agencies.

Forensic interviews, family advocacy and therapy are provided free of charge.

The center was incorporated in 2003, and through funding from federal, state and local resources its doors were opened in 2006. A majority of its funding comes from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and Victims of Crime Assistance and the Alabama Network of Child Advocacy Centers. It is also receives funding from the Morgan County United Way, Morgan County Commission and the municipalities of Decatur, Hartselle and Falkville. It also has community support from the Elk’s Lodge, an annual fundraiser and public contributions.

“Our operating budget for 2011-2012 is $144,000 and we have two full-time and two part-time employees,” said executive director Susan Goggins. “We already know of funding cuts totaling 18 percent for fiscal 2012-2013. We’re going to need all the support we can get from other funding sources to maintain the current level of services.”

Forensic interviews are conducted by highly-educated and trained personnel. The interview is recorded and members of law enforcement and child protective services are able to watch the proceeding via closed-circuit television.

The family advocacy program helped caregivers by providing emotional support and educating them about the investigative process, as well as the dynamics of child sexual abuse.

Therapy is provided to any child or adolescent who has been interviewed at the center. The center employs two licensed social workers who specialize in providing trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy.

Serving as members of the organization’s board of directors are District Attorney Scott Anderson, president; Larry Bennich, vice president; Gail Busbey, secretary; Bob Burrell; Kenneth Collier; Marie Hood; Gail Hurst; Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin; Decatur Councilman Billy Jackson; Tonita Phillips, MSW; Hartselle Police Chief Ron Puckett; Decatur Police Chief Ed Taylor; and Tom Wright.

The advocacy center is celebrating National Child Abuse Protection Month in April.

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