Walworth County center acts as safe place for sad stories
ELKHORN Before the new Walworth County Child Advocacy Center opened earlier this month, Deputy District Attorney Joshua Grube said young victims were forced to tell their stories over and over again.
They might first tell a police officer about the neglect, physical abuse or sexual abuse they suffered, Grube said. Then, they were taken to a child advocate or forensic interviewer to recount the story again, he said, then again to a doctor at a hospital.
"Being shuffled from place to place, having to retell the most terrible things that have ever happened to anybody," Grube said. "We've really, I believe, come up with the best way to do it, and that's to have all of these components under one roof."
With a welcoming environment that feels more like a cabin than a medical facility or law enforcement office, the new center is meant to be a one-stop shop for young victims in Walworth County, officials said. It boasts interview rooms, medical examination rooms and space for police, and is staffed by Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee employees.
All this helps eliminate the chaotic and potentially traumatizing process of bouncing victims from one agency to another.
"We have them talk about these awful things once," Grube said.
After officials first envisioned it in the late 1980s, the center finally started seeing children April 15.
In the center's first 10 days, Manager Paula Hocking said she conducted forensic interviews with 11 children.
Decades in the making
The push for a center serving the county's youngest victims began in 1989 with former District Attorney Phil Koss, now a Walworth County judge, and former judge Robert Kennedy.
The need certainly was there. Last year, Hocking said she conducted than 300 forensic interviews with children.
Those interviews play a big part in cases against sexual abusers or negligent guardians, but until the center opened, there was no space created specifically to conduct them.
When Hocking started working with child victims of abuse or neglect more than 20 years ago, she said her first interview was in a file room of the district attorney's office. A microphone hidden inside a potted plant recorded the conversation, she said.
Since then Hocking has interviewed more than 5,000 kids, eventually moving from the file room to the Walworth County Sheriff's Office and later to a small office in the county health and human services office.
Koss recognized the need for a facility, and he put a major emphasis on prosecuting sex crimes in the district attorney's office, Grube said.
"These are the cases that destroy families," he said.
Making that vision a reality took time, effort and a lot of fundraising.
Construction finally began last year, and the facility now sits off County NN east of downtown Elkhorn. A public grand opening is scheduled June 3.
Although law enforcement and prosecutors will work at the center, it is operated by the Walworth County Alliance for Children, a nonprofit organization.
The center also was built with and operates on private funding, having received no taxpayer money, Hocking said.
The right environment
The kids who go to the Walworth County Child Advocacy Center likely will have been through a lot. That's one reason the center appears to have been designed with their comfort in mind.
The lobby features comfortable chairs and a stone imitation fireplace. Its waiting room for families has a big TV, magazines for adults and books for kids, and the doors and trim are solid wood.
"It had to be an environment that, when they walked through the door, they felt safe and they felt secure," Hocking said. "Once they have that sense of security and safety, the interview will always be better for the kids."
The interview rooms are soundproofed and unassuming. Glass bulbs on the wall and ceiling hide cameras to record difficult conversations at the room's table, which has a small microphone at its center.
Law enforcement officials can monitor interviews from observation rooms next door, and copies of the video are used for investigations.
Instead of being taken to a hospital after the interview, kids can walk to a medical exam room down the hall, which officials hope to line with children's artwork.
The work to make kids comfortable seemed to pay off with the first child who went to the center, Hocking said. After she walked inside, the girl was surprised when Hocking told her they would be having an interview.
"She goes, 'But this is a house,'" Hocking said. "I thought, 'Oh, my, we did it right.'"