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“NOBODY’S EVER LISTENED BEFORE”

LIFEHOUSE CHILD ADVOCACY CENTER SUPPORTS CHILDREN GOING THROUGH TRAUMA

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Article by Linda Ditch

Photography by Humbelina Huber Photography

Before LifeHouse Child Advocacy Center was established in 1999, a child survivor of a traumatic event was often faced with telling their story over and over to receive help and justice. Law enforcement officers and detectives, the Department for Children and Families, and prosecutors all had questions. All the while, the family went from one place to another, and the child relived the trauma over and over again.

            LifeHouse eases that burden. The non-profit has helped more than 5,000 children since its inception with its mission to unite people and resources in support of children going through trauma, such as sexual or physical abuse. LifeHouse forensic interviewers are trained in child development, so they know how to talk to children and make the interview legally defensible for a court case.

Executive Director Kelly Durkin says, “That way, children aren’t passed around to five different places, talking to people who aren’t trained and don’t know how to talk to kids, potentially making it more traumatic. We’re bringing the professionals to the family instead of making the family go all over.”

           She adds, “The kids are our priority. Our job is that child and their family. How do we get that child on a healing path? What services does that family need? If it goes to court, we want to walk through it with them to protect the child and not make this more traumatic. That child is our priority. Our second goal is to provide support and assist in handing the district attorney the best case possible.” 

Executive Director Kelly Durkin says, “That way, children aren’t passed around to five different places, talking to people who aren’t trained and don’t know how to talk to kids, potentially making it more traumatic. We’re bringing the professionals to the family instead of making the family go all over.”

           She adds, “The kids are our priority. Our job is that child and their family. How do we get that child on a healing path? What services does that family need? If it goes to court, we want to walk through it with them to protect the child and not make this more traumatic. That child is our priority. Our second goal is to provide support and assist in handing the district attorney the best case possible.” 

Jill Shehi Chapman is one of LifeHouse’s forensic interviewers. She is trained to conduct a forensic interview, known as Safe Talk, that provides child victims the opportunity to open up in a safe, neutral environment. She assesses the child’s cognitive skills and language development, and obtains details of the traumatic event. Law enforcement and DCF investigators watch the interview on closed-circuit monitors. The child’s statement is also digitally recorded, eliminating the need for multiple interviews.

           A LifeHouse Family Advocate meets with the non-offending family members. While the child’s interview takes place, the advocate tells the loved ones about specialized therapeutic services and information on coping with the traumatic circumstances. These advocates refer families to professionals with special training in trauma and victimization.

LifeHouse advocates also help children prepare to testify in court when necessary. In Kansas, a recorded forensic interview with experts like Shehi Chapman does not replace court testimony. The video can be used as evidence and allows prosecutors to decide what charges to bring. The forensic interviewer attends court proceedings where the video is used.

           This work is difficult. Shehi Chapman acknowledges it’s hard to leave the day at the office when she goes home. That’s one reason why Durkin secured the funds to require all the staff to visit with a therapist they chose once a month.

           “When I tell people what I do, one of the first things they say is, ‘Oh wow. That must be really hard,’” says Durkin. “It’s not near as hard for me as it is for the rest of the staff. The number one thing I can do is be the best listener I can be and figure out what they need.”

Educating the public is important to LifeHouse’s mission in helping caregivers, community members and professionals keep children safe.  Because most community members are eligible to serve on a jury, it is important to provide education about the reality, and myths, around the victims and perpetrators of child sexual abuse. One such myth, when prosecuting offenders, is people believe how the proceedings should go and how victims should act. In crimes against children, there are often no witnesses or evidence.

            To do this work, “You have to be aware of the small wins,” Shehi Chapman says. “It seems like in the criminal justice system, the hope is everybody who is guilty is convicted and is going to prison for a long time. That’s just not realistic. But if we have an instance where a child says, ‘Man, you really listened. Nobody’s ever listened before,’ that’s a small win. Or maybe an offender didn’t get charged or convicted, but the child’s home became safe, or safer. That’s a small win.”

As a non-profit, LifeHouse relies on the community’s generosity. Durkin says, “The number one thing we get told when any of us speak to a group is, ‘I had no idea you existed.’ I’ve been doing this for 21 years, and I could talk to a group right now, and all of them would say that. So just knowing we’re here is important. And, of course, we’re always taking donations.”

           Shehi Chapman stresses, “The finances are a big deal. We’re a non-profit. We’re very tiny and busting at the seams in our building, so we’re actively looking for a new one. If we were to get another interviewer and a bigger space today, we would instantly serve more kids. So many organizations are asking for money for things they can do down the road. But we have the need right now. We would instantly see more families.”

           To learn more about LifeHouse and its mission, visit www.lifehousecac.com. Tax-deductible financial contributions are welcome, and they also have an Amazon wish list of needed items. Volunteers and participants are also welcome for any of their upcoming fundraising events.

To keep track of the latest information, follow their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/LifeHouseChildAdvocacyCenter.

 

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