Butler child advocacy center slated to open next year

| Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, 6:00 p.m.

A nonprofit child advocacy center is expected to open next year in Butler County, sparing child abuse victims from undergoing repeat interviews about their ordeal at different agencies.

“The more times kids talk about being abused, the less likely they are to want to talk about it again. They are very literal. They will say, ‘I already told that to the police.' That compromises getting good information,” said B.T. Fullerton, an assistant Butler County district attorney who has prosecuted child abusers.

“Children won't have to keep going through the same stories over and over again” with the advocacy center acting as a coordinating operation, Fullerton said.

“It's better for them. It's definitely better for us.”

Allegheny, Lawrence and Indiana counties are among those that have had child advocacy centers for years, but the sex abuse scandal involving retired Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky has led to a push to open them everywhere, Fullerton said.

Centre County did not have a child advocacy center at the time when Sandusky abused boys, sometimes on university property.

“The Sandusky episode brought back the impetus to open these centers. That case just really highlighted a lot of the problems with the system,” Fullerton said.

Centre County just opened a child advocacy center.

“Without these centers, children are at the mercy of law enforcement officers who may or may not really be trained to interview them,” said Sue Ascione, director of The Children's Advocacy Center of Lawrence County, which was founded in 1989.

Child advocacy centers are affiliated with and accredited by the Washington-based National Children's Alliance, which has 750 member centers nationally.

Butler's center will open in July and will be housed at the Center for Community Resources in Butler.

It will later move to its own building.

“We will have everything set up at that center. All the interviews will take place at the center, the police prosecutors, everyone,” said Joyce Ainsworth, director of Children and Family Services for the county.

Children now have to visit the CYS offices in the Butler County building.

“This is not a nice place for kids. It is cramped. You have to go through a metal detector to get in here. I'm sure this atmosphere makes a lot of kids uncomfortable,” Ainsworth said.

When the center opens, trained forensic interviewers will interview the children.

“It's an approach that is more likely to produce evidence that will stand up in court if the investigation leads to criminal prosecution,” said Fullerton.

Sue Counts, a social worker with CYS, who interviews children of all ages, said there's a formal protocol to a forensic interview.

“You have to present questions in a non-leading way. You have to make the kids comfortable, according to their age and development,” Counts said.

Police, CYS caseworkers, medical experts and prosecutors observe the interview through a one-way mirror. The interviews are recorded.

“It gives us a much more reliable and defensible interview of a child that is likely to hold up in court,” Fullerton said.

Starting next year, medical examinations of suspected victims will be handled by physicians from the Butler Healthcare System, Ainsworth said.

In the past, they were examined at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

“That is such an important change. That was another complication. Kids shouldn't have to drive an hour and twenty minutes to be examined because they have been abused,” she said.

Ainsworth expects the center's annual budget to be about $200,000. It will have a director and another full-time employee.

CYS has a staff of 47 that includes 28 caseworkers.

The office receives about 3,400 calls each year, has 700 open cases and 118 children in the foster care system.

“The problem is bigger than people think it is,” she said of child abuse, and the number of cases has been rising.

“There are two reasons for that. I think there is greater awareness and more reporting. But I also think the actual number of cases is still going up,” she said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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