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NH Advocacy Place

Young victims of sex crimes find help at Child Advocacy Center

By KATHRYN MARCHOCKI
New Hampshire Union Leader Staff


It could be any child's bedroom, comfortable and small with soft purple walls. Not a place where dark secrets get told.

For dozens of abused children who have come to the Child Advocacy Center since it opened last August, it is a safe and reassuring place for them to reveal painful accounts of rape, molestation and other sexual assaults, nearly all at the hands of someone they knew and trusted.

"They walk in and they are nervous," said Bethany Cottrell, a forensic interviewer at the 960 Auburn St. center. "Then they tell me their deepest, darkest secrets. They know they don't ever have to see me again. And then they talk to me about soccer."

The Child Advocacy Center model - which started in Huntsville, Ala. in the early 1980s - is revolutionizing how child sex crimes are investigated, area police and prosecutors said. And it's getting results, they added.

Rather than subject child victims to at least six to eight separate interviews by police, social workers, prosecutors and victim witness advocates, the child meets once with a trained, certified forensic interviewer at the privately run center.

Meanwhile, those assigned to the case work as a team. They watch the interview over closed-circuit television from another room, occasionally passing questions on to the interviewer via two-way radio. The interview is recorded and kept as evidence.

"We would dream about the day we could bring this type of focus and neutrality and connection in a team environment to these cases ... It is the way we should have been doing them," said Hillsborough County Attorney Marguerite L. Wageling, who began prosecuting child sex assaults in 1985 and sits on the center's board of directors.

Since the state's first Child Advocacy Center opened on the Seacoast in 2000, they operate in all but Merrimack and Coos counties, Child Advocacy Center of Hillsborough County Executive Director Kristie Palestino said. Plans are under way to open centers those counties next year, she said.

Getting justice

"For many, many years, we asked children to be seen and not heard," Bedford Police Detective Matthew J. Fleming said.

"Now, not only are they seen by the CAC, but they are heard by the CAC. And it gives them the voice that they desperately need, which is to get help," added Fleming, a veteran sex crime investigator and supporter of the center's child-friendly, team-based approach to cracking these cases.

Counties that adopted the child advocacy center model nationwide reportedly have seen an estimated 40 percent increase in successful prosecutions of child sexual assaults, Palestino said.

Not only is the model less costly than traditional investigations, it also produces stronger cases that often result in abusers opting to plead guilty rather than stand trial, she added.

"Ultimately, if we can avoid having to have a victim testify because the suspect's case is so damaging and so solid that they have to plead out and the victim never has to go to court to testify, you did it. It's done," Fleming explained. "You got justice for the child. You got justice for the family."

More importantly, the model spares child victims from having to describe again and again the intimate, embarrassing details of their abuse, each time reliving the painful experience.

"Kids were retelling their stories six, seven or eight times. Sometimes, you would see a number of discrepancies in the disclosure, not because the child lied, but because the child is asked the question different ways and suspects were getting away," Fleming said.

Defense lawyers often pounced on any variation in the children's stories in an attempt to discredit them at trial, he explained.

Stronger cases

From the outside, there is little that sets the gray, ranch-style house apart from any other in the quiet neighborhood across from Elliot Hospital, which donated the house to the private nonprofit organization that runs the center.

Once inside, however, visitors step into a cheerful room with child-sized sofa chairs, teddy bears and games. Scattered along the hallway walls are children's colorful hand prints. Called the Hands of Hope Wall, it's there to remind children they are not alone. Each child is invited to add a handprint to the collection and take home a teddy bear before he or she leaves.

The Manchester center, also known as the Mary Elliot House, serves northern Hillsborough County communities. The county's southern tier has been served by the Nashua center, which opened in fall 2004. The two centers served 466 children in 2007. Their average age was nine.

The center not only provides support to families immediately, but it produces stronger cases that move more quickly through the justice system, Wageling said.

"It used to be you'd get a case 60 days or so after it was reported to police and 10 people had interviewed the kid and nobody had reached out to the parents," Wageling said. "The case would start to fall apart before we even got it."

Jennifer Sosa feared the worst when she learned Shane Vadney, a teacher's aide at the Nashua day-care center her 3-year-old daughter attended, was accused in 2006 of molesting another girl there.

"My daughter was very close with him ... She adored him," Sosa said.

The Child Advocacy Center in Nashua worked closely with investigators and began interviewing 80 children between 3 and 5 years old shortly after the allegation was made.

Sosa was skeptical, fearing interviewers would ask leading questions that would not stand up in court.

"If I'm going to have my child interviewed, I don't want it to be futile; I want it to have some weight," Sosa recounted.

Her daughter's interview over, the girl came skipping out of the room to her mother. "Hi, mommy. I'm all done," Sosa said her daughter told her.

Only later did the team inform Sosa her daughter said Vadney abused her. Today, nearly two years after Vadney confessed to molesting 12 children and was sentenced to 50 to 110 years in prison, Sosa said her daughter still hasn't talked about what she revealed to the interviewer.

Sosa said the case would not have come to such a successful and quick prosecution - Vadney was sentenced less than eight months after his arrest - without the center's involvement. She now serves on its board of directors.

Today the center's continued success depends on community support. It is seeking individual and corporate donations, leaders and volunteers. Donations of office supplies, teddy bears and in-kind services also are appreciated.

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For more information, contact Kristie Palestino at 623-2300 or online at www.cac-nh.org.

READER'S COMMENTS


This is a safe enviroment for children,however there is no follow up that gets done for these young victims.My family has used this center.But once they leave the after the interview they seem to fall through the cracks.WHY???It doesnt help that the abuser doesnt pay for their crimes for 1 or more years,thanks to the justice system.My family is still waiting,even thogh he confessed hes still free to hurt others.AGAIN WHY???We need more done for abuse victims after they come forward.
- karen, manchester

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