In 2014 a Travis County nonprofit celebrates its 25th year of helping to assist children who have been physically or sexually abused.
When a child is the suspected victim of abuse or is a witness to a violent crime such as homicide in Travis County, they are referred to the Center for Child Protection for a forensic interview. There they also can receive free services such as medical exams, court orientation, parent coaching, referrals for psychiatric services, protective parenting groups, emergency funding, crisis intervention, and individual and family therapy. Executive Director Michael Torres said the center hopes to provide healing for the families it sees.
"I'd like to use the word 'healing,' but when you've been victimized in that way, it's not something that you ever forget, nor really should you," he said. "But what we try to accomplish is not having that victimization identify who they are. To a certain degree, it becomes a sacred wound for them and something that becomes a part of their life but not ultimately who they are. Healing it's different for every family."
Families are referred by law enforcement or Child Protective Services to CCP, which collaborates with police departments including Austin, Austin ISD, Bee Cave, Cedar Park, Lakeway, West Lake Hills as well as the Travis County Sheriff's Office to help conduct suspected abuse investigations involving children. The nonprofit aims to lessen the trauma that can be associated with abuse investigations and only interviews children once for official police statements. Torres said it is common for children to feel intimidated by the presence of a police officer, so CCP's forensic interviewers record the interview for police records. The average interview is about 45 minutes, depending on the situation and the child, he said.
"It takes a tremendous amount of courage, I think, for those children to outcry," he said. "We're trying to heal them the best that we can."
After the interview many families come back to the center for healing aids. In addition to talk therapy, the nonprofit uses other forms of therapies and tactile activities to help children and families cope with trauma.
"We also discovered that it was not enough just to intervene on behalf of these children," he said. "If we were really going to break the cycle of abuse, we needed to try to heal their spirits."
Director of Program Services Amanda Van Hoozer said through art, ropes courses or pet therapy, it can be easier for counselors to understand someone's struggle. She said pet therapy is effective because it provides a distraction for people who may be shy, embarrassed or ashamed.
"[Animals] are nonjudgmental, they give you something to do because you're petting them," she said. "Four-legged creatures seem to be able to [provide] things that we as adults can't do, especially with kids."
Staffers also give children anatomically correct dolls and drawing pads to demonstrate their abusive experience, some of which is used as evidence in court cases. CCP raised $9.2 million in donations to help build its facility on FM 969 in Austin and has been used by the FBI, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and officials from the Attorney General's office for investigations.
Torres said the organization will continue to push for abuse prevention and education.
"I tell people all the time when I speak to the community that I would love to be unemployed, I really would."
How to report abuse
Most abused children do not talk about their abuse or tell anyone what is happening, according to CCP. If you suspect abuse has occurred:
- Call the abuse hotline at 1-800-252-5400.
- Report it online at www.txabusehotline.org.
- In a life-threatening emergency, dial 9-1-1 or contact local law enforcement immediately.
Some signs of abuse include:
Source: Center for Child Protection
- An abused child or teenager may develop new fears of situations, places or people.
- If a child or teen is not allowed or able to express anger toward the abuser, they may take their anger out on others or themselves.
- A child or teen might have problems sleeping, have nightmares, or experience a sudden loss or gain in appetite.
- A child or teen might feel guilt and shame from being abused, which can cause them to hurt themselves.
Center for Child Protection, 8509 FM 969, Bldg. 2, Austin, 512-472-1164, www.centerforchildprotection.org