RALEIGH, N.C. — The Special Victims Unit of the Wake County District Attorney’s Office employs three assistant district attorneys who focus on sexual and physical abuse of children in a county with thousands of allegations of abuse every year.
Investigating those allegations, and providing services and treatment for abused children, involves multiple law-enforcement, health and social-services agencies and typically requires that children undergo multiple interviews, evaluations and medical examinations at different agencies at different times, a process that can force them to relive the trauma of the original abuse.
In 22 other counties or groups of counties in the state, child advocacy centers have been established to coordinate and help children and their families navigate that process, which aims to protect and treat abused children and prosecute their abusers.
Now, thanks to a collaborative planning process that WakeMed spearheaded, SAFEchild is set to open a child advocacy center for Wake County, which is the biggest county in the state without a child advocacy center.
Child abuse and the lack of coordination for handling allegations of abuse represent a “serious problem,” says Melanie Shekita, an assistant district attorney who serves on a planning committee for the new center.
“We need a comprehensive center to help provide adequate resources for all children who have been sexually or physically abused,” she says.
To be located in a former residence on Kidd Road near WakeMed that served as the initial home for SAFEchild, the new center will provide a child-friendly environment to better serve children by coordinating the response to allegations of abuse, says Marjorie Menestres, executive director of SAFEchild.
Shekita says the center will provide joint interviews of children by multiple agencies that will be handled by forensic social workers and will be admissible in court.
The center also will provide follow-up treatment for children and their families.
Menestres says the center “will help children not be retraumatized throughout the investigation and treatment of their abuse.”
The center, set to open in July, expects in its first year to serve 325 children and their non-offending parents, a number that should grow by 50 children the second year, Menestres says.
With the annual budget for the center totaling $300,000, SAFEchild already has secured commitments for over $50,000 in unrestricted funding, plus a commitment from WakeMed of $40,000 in in-kind contributions, including a part-time medical director, a colposcope and camera used for child sexual-abuse exams, and anatomically-correct dolls.
And the N.C. Governor’s Crime Commission will support the cost of the center’s director and its family case manager, plus two computers, monitors and printers.
Despite the difficult economic times, the SAFEchild board voted unanimously to add the center to its programs, which already serve roughly 650 families and 5,000 children a year, because it was the right thing to do, Menestres says.
“We were established to fill a need,” says Menestres, who has headed SAFEchild since it was formed in 1993 by the Junior League of Raleigh, “and we are living by our traditions.”