Walworth County advocacy center nearly complete
The 34-year-old woman was only 7 when Leon L. Laudie of Lafayette Township abused her during a weekend sleepover at his house. Natalie, who asked that her real name not be used, told her mother about the assault five years after the fact.
From there, it took Natalie and her mother several interviews and a great deal of bureaucratic wrangling to get Laudie behind bars.
Although she tries to forget about her traumatic experience, she is quick to recall the difficulties of working with law enforcement and the judicial system to get justice.
“It was kind of cold,” Natalie said of her first interview with police. “I felt like I was a criminal being interrogated.”
Natalie was pulled out of her elementary school class by investigators for the first of two interviews. She didn’t expect them to know how to speak with a girl who had been sexually assaulted, she said.
“But they could’ve had a little warmth, maybe,” she added.
The system is similar now. Law enforcement officers are trained to interview people of all backgrounds. But it takes a specific set of skills to work with children because they communicate differently and are suggestible, authorities say.
District Attorney Phil Koss and a group of leaders in Walworth County are trying to change the system. They formed the Walworth County Alliance for Children, a nonprofit group working to create the Walworth County Children’s Advocacy Center.
The idea is to have a place with consolidated services where families can report crimes, work with professionals trained to understand children’s needs and get post-traumatic help. The center would advocate for children, but its goal is to serve the whole family.
“What happens for many people is the case is investigated, we get them convicted and send the assaulter away, but then victims are on their own,” Koss said.
Koss, president of the alliance for children, would like to see four main components as part of the children’s advocacy center.
- Forensic interviews and medical examinations, currently provided by Milwaukee-based Children’s Hospital and housed at the county’s health and human services building;
- The Association for Prevention of Family Violence for victim assistance and court advocacy;
- Therapy for victims and families;
n And a family resource center for education and victim support.
“A child can come to a friendly place and get the whole package,” said Paula Hocking, a forensic interviewer for Children’s Hospital who has been in the Walworth County Alliance for Children since 1989.
Hocking, who conducts most of the county’s forensic interviews with children, said the advocacy center would create a system with better transparency and follow-through. Parents understand what investigators are doing and the process becomes simpler for the family.
“They will be interviewed by a team of people trained in the area of interviewing with techniques that make sure children are asked the right questions,” Hocking said.
Most important, she said, “children and family will begin receiving services immediately.”
The idea to create the children’s advocacy center has been around since the late 1980s, but plans have never been this close to completion.
Koss last week went before the county’s health and human services board to ask for a vote to allow the advocacy center to deal with sexual and domestic abuse cases involving children. The proposal now goes to the county board for a vote during its December meeting.
The Alliance for Children has raised about $200,000 and plans to fund the center itself. The center would serve Walworth County, but no tax dollars would be used, officials said.
“We’re trying to speak for those who are too young to speak for themselves,” Koss said.
A place to call home
Walworth County Public Works Director Shane Crawford suggested officials house the center at the Elkhorn Government Center downtown.
Most of the building’s west wing belongs to the city of Elkhorn. County officials offered that side of the building in exchange for annexation of the eastern part of the city, where the county built the jail and courthouse on County NN.
The south end of the west wing is still the county’s property, and Crawford has worked with other officials to explore the possibility of housing the center there.
The place isn’t as big as Koss ultimately wants it to be, but it’s a good start, he said.
A local developer offered to build the advocacy center across the street from the Walworth County Law Enforcement Center on County NN for no upfront cost to the county. Then he would rent the property and donate it after 15 years.
The problem is there are only two potential tenants at this time. So officials will wait a little longer and move forward on possibly moving into the downtown Elkhorn building.
That’s the discussion they will have at their upcoming meeting scheduled for early December, Koss said.
Natalie hopes the Walworth County Children’s Advocacy Center will be up and running soon.
Earlier this year, she attended the trial for Laudie’s latest offense involving a young girl he knew.
During the trial, the girl was asked to sit on the witness stand and speak before the court. Natalie felt like it was her testifying.
“‘That poor little girl’ is all I kept thinking,” she said. “I thought, ‘What I did to prosecute that man did nothing. It’s terrible that a little girl had to be hurt.
“I thought about how things would’ve gone differently if the center was in place.”