Child advocacy center becoming a reality
ELKHORN Even a labor of love can become tiring and frustrating.
After years of planning and work, Walworth County child advocates are watching construction of a Walworth County Child Advocacy Center.
It started 23 years ago with Robert Kennedy, who at the time was a Walworth County judge. His idea was to form a Children's Court Advisory Board.
"Back in 1989, with the help and determination of Phil Koss, we started looking at studies that showed how sexually abused children were not only traumatized by the assault but also by police investigations and interrogations," Kennedy said. "This was the genesis of what we now see being built."
Koss at the time was an assistant Walworth County district attorney and now is a Walworth County judge.
The ideas and needs identified by Kennedy and Koss have resulted in a new 4,200-square-foot center designed to meet the needs of physically and sexually abused children.
"We have seen what happens when abused children must go to various institutional-like facilities for police interviews and medical care, for example," said Margaret Downing, co-president of the Walworth County Alliance for Children. "These were traumatic experiences for the child."
The center will now provide a one-stop location where abused children can be cared for and investigators can develop a case to apprehend offenders.
"No longer will children suffering from physical and/or sexual abuse be taken from one building to another," Downing said. "This new center will allow officials to do their work in a family-friendly setting that is best suited to the child."
The new center will provide modern interview rooms with video capabilities, medical exam rooms, lounge areas for families and office space.
Downing said it's important to realize what the center is not.
"It is not a residential facility," she said. "Children and families won't live there.
"And this is not a publicly-supported facility," she said. "The $620,000 facility is being built and will be operated with private funding."
The alliance has raised about $110,000. The mortgage and operating expenses will be paid with contributions and operating partners, such as Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
"The fact that Children's Hospital has joined us and supported us speaks to the quality of care child victims will receive at the center," Downing said.
The center is under construction west of the health and human services building at W4063 County NN. The sheriff's office and the justice center are across the highway from the center.
The center, expected to be ready for use in April, will be a welcome change for staff.
"It's been a long haul—20 years of all of us working together to see this center built," said Paula Hocking, the center's director. "The need keeps increasing, and this center will help us meet that need."
The center brings together a team to help abused children, Hocking said.
"We can now have a multi-jurisdictional team at one location that's designed with the abused child in mind," she said.
Hocking and her staff now work out of a small office in the Health and Human Services Building. The new center will eliminate the need to have children transported to various facilities for interviews, processing and health care.
Hocking pointed out the work and generosity of Lakeland Builders Association in building the center.
"Lakeland Builders really stepped up with generous contributions," she said. "Their involvement made this happen for the kids."
Under the leadership of Koss, the district attorney's office placed a priority on prosecuting child abuse cases. The center will provide authorities an opportunity to develop cases against abusers while meeting the needs of the victims, said Josh Grube, the deputy district attorney who has also worked on the project.
"This is the product of decades of work, and much of the credit should go to Phil Koss and Judge Kennedy," Grube said. "The main focus of the center is to serve the needs of child victims and their families. That's a priority at the district attorney's office as well.
"Yes, the center will assist us as prosecutors, but I want to stress that the real concern here is having a safe place for the children who have been abused and their families," Grube said. "It's a service that, unfortunately, we are seeing a growing need for."
A key player in turning ideas into a building is Bill Henry, the center's architect from Kehoe-Henry & Associates in Elkhorn.
"I get a great deal of satisfaction when I see construction starting on a project like this," Henry said. "It's seeing ideas turned into reality.
"We go through this process often, but this project with its mission of helping abused kids is something special for all us," he said.
For those who worked on the project from the beginning, seeing ground broken and construction begin was hard to describe.
"When I think about it, there's a tremendous sense of relief," Kennedy said. "Many people have dedicated their time to see this happen for children who have been abused. It's a real thrill to see it all come together for them."