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Special to the Enquirer Misty Cowger, executive director of Morgan County Child Advocacy Center, shares a moment with Jezebel, the facility dog who assists victim advocates.

Morgan Child Advocacy Center provides safe place to talk about abuse

By Erica Smith

For the Enquirer

As the executive director of the Morgan County Child Advocacy Center, Misty Cowger said she wishes her nonprofit organization was not needed, but she’s happy children have a safe, non-judgmental place to talk and receive help – a place where she knows she makes a difference.

Cowger said she has always worked with non-profit organizations. She was a program manager for Goodwill Industries when she lived in Texas and helped homeless individuals find jobs. She worked as a victims’ advocate at the CAC when she moved to Alabama before moving to North Carolina and becoming the East Coast case worker for a global anti-human-trafficking organization.

When Cowger moved back to Alabama, she again worked at the CAC – this time as the executive director. Cowger has worked for the CAC for just less than seven years total, including about three as director.

Cowger said the CAC’s mission in Morgan County is to provide help and healing to children by being “truly a safe place for a child to talk in a non-judgmental atmosphere.”

Q: How have you seen your organization be effective?

A: We have seen children truly heal and get better. I think that’s the one thing about the CAC that keeps most of us going: Yes, we do hear the hard

things, we see the trauma that children experience, but from day one until the day they’re done with therapy, sometimes there is just such a distinct difference that you can see in kids. Seeing kids get healed and go on to live productive lives, and happy lives – I think that’s the biggest thing for us.

Q: How does your organization impact the community?

A: We provide services to kids in Morgan County between the ages of 3-18. We provide all of our services absolutely free. Sadly, we know child abuse is happening in Morgan County, even if we don’t want to really think about it or talk about it. And because we are here, we’re able to give children that safe place to talk about their abuse, but then we’re also able to provide treatment to them.

So, we provide therapy services, and we provide something called trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, which is the gold standard in therapy for kids who have experienced trauma.

Last year we provided 929 sessions at no cost to kids in Morgan County. I can tell you, more times than not, children are more willing to tell us, as strangers, things they don’t even feel comfortable telling their parents. I think we just provide that opportunity for them so they can tell their story, whatever that is.

Q: Why did you get involved with nonprofits?

A: I think I was always a social worker at heart, even as a child. I was the child who always wanted to stand up for the child who needed help or had a need in some way.

Then when I was in college, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I took a social work class as an elective. Somehow there was an epiphany that, oh, you can be a helper as a job. So, right out of college, I started looking for nonprofits that were hiring in our area.

The first nonprofit I was connected to assisted victims of crime. After I saw the impact that it made, I was hooked. My thought was, “OK, I can make a difference; I can make an impact in my community.”

Q: Have you ever been personally impacted by your organization?

A: The first case I worked with a child with Jezebel, our facility dog – that child was very fearful being here. The child was just scared and didn’t want to talk to anybody. I finally went out and I asked, “Do you like dogs?” There was no verbal response; they just nodded their head. So I said, “Well, I actually have a dog, and her name is Jezebel, and I’ll go get her.” We saw that child transform, truly, from a kiddo who was hiding behind the door because they did not want to come out and talk, to going back in the interview room and talking for, I want to say an hour, about the things they had experienced.

Truly, in that moment, I remembered: This is why we do what we do.

We have little stuffed animals that look like Jezebel, and we gave the child one. I heard from the child’s caregiver, maybe a week or so after, that the kiddo had been sleeping with the Jezebel stuffed animal every night.

It just reaffirmed, OK, this is why she’s here. This is why we do what we do: to make an impact so children can have the availability to talk about the things that happened to them in a safe place.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing your organization?

A: Funding would be one of the big ones. Just like everyone else, we’ve been impacted by COVID. The big way we saw is not necessarily that child abuse stopped happening – because it didn’t – but our funding and our fundraising the past year or two. We’ve shifted to doing online fundraising and just trying to be creative with that.

At the federal level, this past fiscal year, there were several millions of dollars cut from the Victims of Crime Act, which is one of our main funding

sources. So really, for us to be able to do what we do, obviously funding is very important.

The CAC’s annual budget is $379,127, and 75 percent of that goes to the staff as salaries and benefits. The other 25 percent is used for training, supplies and supplies for Jezebel.

Q: What is the process through which you get a case of child abuse?

A: The process, which we don’t necessarily see, is somebody calls either DHR or a local law enforcement and says something has either happened, or a child has disclosed something traumatic. DHR or law enforcement contacts us, and they say, here’s the situation, and then we schedule what’s called a forensic interview.

During that process, we have a victim advocate that meets with the non-offending caregiver and goes through all of the services provided, all the resources that are available to them and their rights throughout this process.

Then that advocate follows up with that family throughout the duration of the criminal justice process.

After the interview, DHR and law enforcement take that information, and they continue their investigation.

We don’t make the determination of whether the children are removed from their homes or whether someone gets arrested. We provide all the support services. We provide the advocacy during that process, we provide trauma-focused therapy, and Jezebel’s available.

If and when they go to court, we’re able to go to court with them.

Therapy is usually four to six months or so, depending on the child and the trauma.

Q: What are your personal responsibilities?

A: I oversee the direct day-to-day operations of the agency, and then I also provide victim advocacy services to some clients. I am a trained forensic interviewer, although I am not one of our main interviewers right now.

The biggest direct service right now for me is our facility dog, Jezebel. I am her handler, which means I take care of her, she lives with me, and any services that she’s involved in, I’m involved in those as well – helping coordinate those and making sure that it’s appropriate for her to be involved in those.

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