Editor’s note: This is the first story in a series about Child Safe of Central Missouri Inc., an advocacy agency that coordinates the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases. The victims who spoke to the Democrat for this story asked only their first names be used.
It started with the caller ID.
When Kathryn came home from work she would check the caller ID log and notice her brother-in-law, “Uncle Mike,” had called numerous times. She would ask her daughter, Marie, if she had spoken to him, why he had called.
“I don’t know,” Marie would mumble. “I didn’t answer the phone.”
Next it was the windows.
Kathryn would leave her house windows open during the late spring and early summer when the weather was nice. When she would wake up in the morning the windows were shut and locked.
“I kept saying, (Marie) it’s so nice out we don’t have to run the air conditioner, why do you keep locking the windows?” she said. “I told her we were safe out in the country, no one was going to break in.”
Finally the dreams started. Marie would wake her mother up in the middle of the night saying she’d had a nightmare.
“She wouldn’t talk about it, tell me what she was dreaming about,” Kathryn said.
About a month later Marie would finally tell her mother what had been bothering her, why she had been so withdrawn for the past few months — she was being sexually abused by Uncle Mike.
“It’s such a betrayal of trust,” Kathryn said. “It sickens me to think about that time in her life. I should have known.”
‘I will always remember that day’
The formation of Child Safe started in 1998 through the efforts of community members who wanted to find a solution to child abuse. Before agencies like Child Safe, a child who had been abused may have had to tell their story over and over, to numerous law enforcement officials, workers with the Children’s Division, attorneys and medical examiners. Child Safe seeks to eliminate some of that by providing one place for all the relevant officials to gather.
“If a child discloses they’ve been sexually abused, for example, we’ll get a referral about the case from either Children’s Division or law enforcement,” said Child Safe Executive Director Carolyn Green. “From that point we work as quickly as we can get the child in for an interview and to coordinate the investigative team.”
Child Safe officials do not investigate any claims. Instead, they conduct a forensic interview with the child and provide resources to the family as needed.
“It’s up to law enforcement to see a case out, to pursue it,” Green said. “Our role is to make sure the child is safe and comfortable while here so they can tell their story.”
While raising Marie and her two older brothers, Kathryn said she was a bit overprotective.
“When I moved to Missouri I was a single, working mom, I did the best I could,” she said. “I was probably over-cautious because of it actually. I wasn’t one to let my kids spend the night at a friend’s home if I didn’t know the parents well and even from 2 or 3-years-old we talked about private areas and that no one touches you there.”
Kathryn eventually remarried and with the marriage came several new family members, including Uncle Mike, but Kathryn said there were no warning signs that her children didn’t like him.
By the time she was 13-years-old, Marie was spending more time alone in her room with the blinds drawn but Kathryn chalked it up to the onset of puberty and becoming a teenager. It wasn’t until the end of June 2006 that Marie told her mother what happened.
“I will always remember that day, every detail,” Kathryn said. “I had gotten home from work and was fixing sloppy joes for dinner. I remember it like it was yesterday, (Marie) came in and sat at the kitchen table and she seemed distraught. She put her head down on the table and said ‘I need to talk to you. I don’t want to get in trouble.’
“I didn’t even turn around when she said that, I didn’t stop browning the hamburger.”
Marie was nervous, Kathryn said, and repeatedly wiped her forehead, working up the courage to tell her mother.
“She said ‘I don’t want you to be mad but Uncle Mike touches me in my private area and I can’t take it anymore,’” Kathryn said. “I almost threw up, right there in the kitchen. I went over to the table and hugged her and held her hands and asked what happened.”
Marie told her mother Uncle Mike had stopped by earlier that day on his way home from work and touched her. This was the second or third time it had happened. She hadn’t wanted to tell Kathryn because Uncle Mike told her that Kathryn and her stepfather would be angry with her.
“Those kids think the world of (their stepfather) and Mike had convinced her not to say anything,” Kathryn said. “As soon as she told me I told her it wasn’t her fault, that Mike had done something wrong. And then I called the sheriff’s office.”
Meeting the child advocates
The next morning, Kathryn went to the Pettis County Courthouse to take out an emergency ex-parte, which would prevent Uncle Mike from being near her daughter until a full order of protection could be sought.
“It was (someone in the court office) who suggested I go to Child Safe,” Kathryn said. “So I went right over. I was probably waiting on the front steps when they opened.”
As a rule, Child Safe does not take walk-in clients, but since Kathryn had informed the Pettis County Sheriff’s Office about the abuse, she was able to get a referral to start the forensic interview process. When a new client is referred to the agency, generally the first people the family comes in contact with are the child advocates.
“We’re here to help the families and offer any support we can,” said Child Advocate Amanda Johnson. “We handle all the scheduling first, finding a time when the child can come in for an interview and making sure the team is also available.”
In addition to Child Safe’s forensic interviewer, the team consists of law enforcement and an official from the Children’s Division who will watch the interview in real time. Johnson said generally children are scheduled for an interview as soon as possible, especially if the alleged abuse occurred recently.
“On the day of the interview we’ll give the family a little tour, show the child the room where the interview will be,” Johnson said. “Unless they’re very young, younger than 5 I’d say, we’ll point out the cameras (in the interview room) and tell them what will happen.”
While the child is being interviewed an advocate will start the paperwork process with the rest of the family.
“We give everyone a packet of information which includes things like counseling information and other resources they can use,” said Mandy Jackman, the agency’s newest child advocate. Johnson said many families are in disbelief when they come to Child Safe.
“No one thinks something like this could happen to their child, no one wants to think that,” she said. “Sometimes they’re very quiet, they just want to get through the paperwork. Others just need to talk about it. We’re here to help them however we can.”
“(The child advocate) was amazing,” Kathryn said. “They talked to (Marie) and I together and then they spoke to her. She was a mess but they handled her so wonderfully and made her feel comfortable. They made me feel like she was being taken care of.”
The advocate was able to schedule a forensic interview with Marie within a few days of her disclosure to her mother.
“At the time I knew Marie would be OK, that this would be hard and what she was going to have to do would be hard, but through this great support system of Child Safe, she would be OK,” Kathryn said.
See tomorrow’s edition of the Democrat for part two in this series, an examination of forensic interviews and child abuse investigations.