Abused, neglected girls and boys find help, hope and justice at new Children’s Advocacy Center
Melissa E. HolsmanTreasure Coast Newspapers
Published 6:00 AM EDT Sep. 16, 2022 Updated 6:00 AM EDT Sep. 16, 2022
After a call to an abuse hotline reported a 3-year-old boy had been seen in an online video being sexually abused, investigators located the child and brought him to the Children’s Advocacy Center in Port St. Lucie where he was greeted with a stuffed animal, a snack box and tail wags from a specially trained Siberian Husky named Autumn.
And that’s before the boy met members of a child protection services team tasked with determining if he had been molested, what resources he needed most and whether investigators could make a case to arrest his purported abuser.
According to Caroline Vinyard, CEO of the Children’s Advocacy Center, it turned out the boy’s mother is accused of sexually abusing him on video to generate extra cash.
“She was doing it to make money because the checks she got in the mail every month wasn’t cutting it,” Vinyard said.
The mother is being prosecuted for felony sexual exploitation of a child, Vinyard said, based in part on evidence gleaned from investigators observing an interview victim advocates conducted in a room equipped to record the fact-finding sessions.
With a child so young, Vinyard said interviewers may use pictures, drawings or dolls to help the youngster describe what happened.
The boy is one of about 50 children who have been referred to the new center in St. Lucie West since it opened in late June, said Debbie Butler, president of Guardians for New Futures, a nonprofit that serves abused youth and the driving force behind creating the facility.
“If you’ve lived sort of a normal life, you have no idea the horrible things that these children go through,” said Butler, who spearheaded a two-year fundraising effort to make the 9,000-square-foot facility a reality.
Safe Space for Abused Kids
The Children’s Advocacy Center, or CAC, located at the old PGA Golf Learning Center site, on St. Lucie West Boulevard just off Interstate 95, provides services and resources to neglected, sexually or physically abused youth from the Treasure Coast and Okeechobee County.
The facility was built with $1.3 million in state funding, while Butler and others raised $500,000 to cover furnishings and related costs.
It brings under one roof — for the first time locally — a team of specially trained professionals who evaluate and investigate cases of child neglect and abuse and help children and their families.
The CAC has been specially designed to minimize trauma and help the children and their parents or guardians feel comfortable and safe. The décor is “child-friendly,” from warm wall and carpet colors to animal-themed artwork and furniture selected to put kids at ease, Butler said.
Its facility dog, Autumn, a rescue that received therapy training through the Paws and Stripes program in Brevard County, greets kids as they enter and often remains with them during interviews.
Before the CAC opened, Butler said abused children referred for services were forced to visit multiple locations, often in different counties, to undergo interviews and medical exams and to receive therapy that may involve the whole family.
“They’re not being transported all over the place,” Butler said. “We want them to feel welcomed and believed and supported.”
Agencies with staff at the CAC include Florida’s Department of Children and Families, Hibiscus Children’s Center and victim advocates with the State Attorney’s Office sexual assault assistance program. There’s also medical and office space for nurses, police officials and prosecutors.
It was a challenge, Vinyard said, to get all the agencies on board and in the building once construction was underway.
“It’s a huge change for everyone … the culture we have created here is one of compassion and very innovative,” she said. “There was a disconnect in communication, like how you can refer and who you can refer, and since we opened, children have been getting the referrals that are appropriate.”
State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl agreed.
He called the center “a sea change in how we handle crimes committed against children.”
“The No. 1 benefit of the CAC is bringing everyone together, so we all understand how an investigation is to be conducted, utilizing best practices,” he said. “And that we’re all working towards the same goal: the protection of children and the prosecution of these perpetrators.”
That includes the case of a 5-year-old girl who was referred to the CAC after testing positive for chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease.
“In her household was her mom and her brother, who was 18. Turns out the 18-year-old had chlamydia too,” Vinyard said. “She was removed from the home.” The girl, Vinyard said, was “deathly afraid of her brother and didn’t want to go back home.”
An investigation is ongoing, and no arrests have been made.
“The mother’s fighting it and like, doesn’t believe that her son would do something like that,” Vinyard said.
Authorities did make an arrest in another case, after finding a young girl from St. Lucie County was being sex trafficked by her uncle, which was verified during an interview with the child.
“What’s great about what we do here is that they’re going to be referred to the sexual abuse treatment program that Hibiscus (Children’s Center) provides and the victim’s advocate,” Vinyard said.
Officials expect to receive more than 1,200 children a year.
CAC data shows of 41 children from Martin, St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties evaluated between February and July, 32 were investigated for sexual abuse, seven for physical abuse and two for neglect.
In 47% of the cases, there were no findings of abuse, and 13% were determined to be unsubstantiated or investigators were unable to determine if a child was abused. Charges were filed in seven cases, and five cases were accepted for prosecution.
Records show 40% of the children were age 6 years and younger; 22% were ages 7 to 12 years; and 38% were 13 to 18 years old.
Prosecution rates, currently at about 50%, are expected to rise with the CAC open, Vinyard said.
Butler noted their colleagues on Florida’s west coast reported that before opening a CAC, “their prosecution rate was about 20%.”
“Their prosecution rate now, with their advocacy center, is over 90%,” she said.
TOP: Guardians for New Futures President Debbie Butler (left) and CEO Caroline Vinyard; BOTTOM LEFT: Butler takes a swing at a wall; BOTTOM RIGHT: The Children’s Advocacy Center’s facility dog Autumn, a Siberian Husky, received special training through the Paws and Stripes program, along with his handler, victim’s advocate Wanda Eckhoff.TOP: MARYANN KETCHAM/SPECIAL TO TCPALM; BOTTOM LEFT: CONTRIBUTED BY MARYANN KETCHAM; BOTTOM RIGHT: CONTRIBUTED BY THE CHILDREN’S ADVOCACY CENTER OF CIRCUIT 19
About 90% of sexually assaulted children are victimized by a perpetrator they know, Vinyard said.
“It’s a family member, relative, neighbor, church member,” she said.
Added Butler: “This can be happening in your gated community and next door. And the sexual abuse cases are now higher than the physical abuse cases.”
Stephanie Castellanos, a multidisciplinary team coordinator at the center, said they’ve produced quick results from the team approach used at the CAC to deal with abused children and their families during such a traumatic time.
“I have seen firsthand a child walking in with the mother, crying, not knowing what to expect,” she said. “Then walking out, smiling and happy knowing the alleged perpetrator is going to be arrested, justice will be served, and they were believed.
“And they were handed a teddy bear, a snack box and a duffel bag.”
In a couple of years, children and their supporters at CAC will benefit from a “garden of healing” planned for a 17,000-square-foot area that will set the center apart from any other in the nation, Vinyard said.
“It’ll be a unique feature that will promote healing through the five senses, a sensory garden, therapeutic horticulture — something innovative that will treat trauma where traditional therapy hasn’t been effective,” she said.
The Children’s Advocacy Center in Port St. Lucie is planning a healing garden in a 17,000-square-foot area “to bring healing for the children who visit,” according to center officials. Artist renderings show water fountains, a tiny town, a sensory garden and a shaded areas for children and adults.
The garden’s design, with boulder fountains, a tiny town and shaded areas, will provide a healing place “to have a positive experience,” Vinyard said.
Fundraising for the project kicks into high gear in the fall to raise an estimated $500,000 to cover construction.
“We have a man who has already donated $3,000 toward the fairy garden,” Butler said.
Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is writer and co-host of “Uncertain Terms,” a true-crime podcast. Reach her at email@example.com.
Victim advocates offer sexual assault assistance to IRSC students from campus-based office
As a freshman student in 1991 attending what is now Indian River State College, a Jensen Beach woman viciously attacked by a stranger who targeted her at a shopping mall met her first victim advocate at a hospital during a sexual assault examination.
“A woman came in and said that she was there for me; I didn’t know who she was,” the woman recalled. “I had just been violently, brutally raped … I couldn’t imagine having had to go through that without her there. “She was literally holding my hand and explaining every step of everything that was happening … when they took the pictures, when they took the swabs and nail clippings.”
The victim advocate, she said, “was just this calming presence when I could not function at all.” Her attacker had tied her up and kicked her in the head causing her to pass out. When she came to, she called 911.
“I was 20, I was living in a house with two other friends. We were all in our first years of college,” she said. “Someone followed me and broke into my home when I was alone and attacked me …100% total stranger.” TCPalm is not naming her to protect the privacy of a victim of sexual assault.
Victim advocates on campus
When she was attending IRSC and for decades afterwards, there weren’t any trained victim advocates on campus to turn to if she felt anxious or fearful or gripped with trauma that could be triggered by her studies, a lecture or watching a film assigned in class. That changed last year, following a meeting with IRSC president Dr. Timothy Moore and Barbara Faulkner, supervisor for the 19th Judicial Circuit’s victim services division and the Sexual Assault Assistance Program of the Treasure Coast, which serves as a rape crisis center for St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River and Okeechobee counties. State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl also met with Moore, said Faulkner, who got permission to permanently base two of their 21 victim advocates in offices at IRSC’s main campus in Fort Pierce.
“My hope was we could collaborate with the college to not only provide information about our program during events, but to provide prevention education and direct services to those on campus that may be affected by sexual violence but have been afraid to speak to anyone,” she said. “Dr. Moore appreciated the services we could bring to the student population and … he immediately began making plans for us to have an office on campus.”
Faulkner, who said despite IRSC reporting data that shows for many years no student has been sexually assaulted on campus, it still happens within the college-age population — a lot. Often the assaults go unreported to law enforcement, she said. On average, there are 463,634 victims — age 12 or older — of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Additional RAINN data shows: Ages 12 to 34 are the highest risk years for rape and sexual assault Women college students ages 18 to 24 are three times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence Among undergraduate students, 26.4% of women and 6.8% of men experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation 13% of all students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (among all graduate and undergraduate students)
Health and Wellness Director Patty Corey-Souza, an instructor and registered nurse who joined IRSC in 1994, said national data related to college students being sexually assaulted shows “those numbers are huge.” “It’s 1-in-4 women and 1-in-6 men. When you look at those numbers, and you look at the number of students we have on campus, it’s happening,” she said. “But the awareness really wasn’t very prevalent, so Dr. Moore has helped to bring this to the forefront. It’s given students permission to seek out these services.” Before last year, Corey-Souza said if she learned of a student who’d been sexually assaulted or was in crisis, she’d call the victim advocates’ office or their 24-hour hotline to seek help.
“The program was always very responsive … but logistically, it was a little difficult. When I needed somebody to address a student issue, I needed it right then and there,” she said. “What’s happened as a result of the program being located in our Student Union … if I need something, I can go to their office and vice versa.”
‘Easy access’ to needed services
Moore, too, noted that “bringing this essential resource to campus raises awareness that there is help nearby for victims of sexual violence, and allows students to see the victim services staff as caring members of the college community.
“Survivors are more likely to seek help from organizations and people they know and can easily access,” said Moore via email. “We hope that if there is ever a need among our students, their family members or neighbors, they will not hesitate to engage and get the services they need.”
Currently, two advocates at IRSC’s main campus — sexual assault prevention educator Alicia Rolle and community outreach coordinator Siobhan McGoorty — connect sexual assault victims with a range of resources, train faculty and staff and help educate students about dating violence, informed consent and how to intervene on a potential victim’s behalf through a national campaign called the Green Dot Bystander Intervention Program.
The Green Dot program teaches employees, staff and students a trio of strategies to safely intervene with an incident of “power-based violence” to diffuse the situation and seek help:
- Direct: Intervene in the moment to prevent a problem from happening
- Distract: Interrupt the situation without directly confronting anybody
- Delegate: Get help from someone who is better equipped to handle the situation
“It’s everyone’s responsibility where they see or hear behaviors that threaten, harass or encourage sexual violence to intervene,” Faulkner said. “This might be taking a friend home who has had too much to drink, explaining that a rape joke isn’t funny, or getting security involved when someone is behaving aggressively.” In addition, each semester, Corey-Souza said Rolle and McGoorty visit her classes to speak to students. “They are no nonsense, very direct, but in a way that my students can relate,” Corey-Souza said. “They define what sexual assault is, what sexual violence is. And define personal boundaries with students … and what consent actually is within the course of a relationship.” Students who are sexual assault survivors can get triggered by something they encounter on campus and need help to cope, she said. That can especially be true for students away from home for the first time. “That happens a lot and when students are triggered for whatever reason, they get stuck … they know they need some help, but where do we turn?” Corey-Souza said. “So, having these resources on campus really serves their needs.”