VICTIMS NEXT DOOR: Part 2-a, BEYOND HORRIFIC

.jpg photo of Director at Child Abuse Center
Stacey Kostevicki, Executive Director at Gulf Coast Kid’s House

Behind the lines of a war on children.

Kimberly Blair, Kaycee Lagarde, Troy Moon, and
Carlos Gieseken, pnj.com

About this series
Today’s stories are the second part in a four-part, eight-day series focusing on child abuse in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Our goal is simple: to increase awareness of the need to report suspected abuse, in the hopes of saving children and families in our community.

The number of reported abuse cases in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties has increased from 1 in 25 in 2004 to 1 in 15 last year. While it’s impossible to determine if the increase is due to better reporting or simply more abuse, one thing is certain — the depth of the abuse has become much more heinous.

Child advocates can’t make the pain of abuse go away, but they can soften the burden that victims carry through the reporting and investigation of their case. We take a look inside the Gulf Coast Kid’s House and into the lives of the saviors who spend their lives advocating for children.

Warm Hugs: Day to day of GCKH employees
By Carlos Gieseken

When children first arrive at the Gulf Coast Kid’s House, they are greeted with colors, shapes and textures that immediately welcome them to the 16,500-square foot building.

Leaning against the receptionist’s table are great big teddy bears and just beyond is the playroom. Defined by a decorative wood A-frame above, the area that contains colorful carpeting, toys, activity tables, an aquarium and a reading nook full of storybooks soon becomes a child magnet.

The waiting area is where families first encounter the Child Family Advocates who guide them through the various rooms inside as their case progresses. They’ll walk with them through the soft, pastel-colored hallways to deposition rooms, medical examination rooms, therapy and to a room containing a miniature model of a court room populated by dolls, action figures and Lego people.

Primary colors and long, straight hallways provoke anxiety, so the passageways are purposely broken up with color changes, wooden furniture, plants, teddy bears and quilts hanging on the walls.

“Nothing you can say can make that better because it already happened. We can offer services from A to Z, but that hurt is going to be there, regardless.”
Caitlin Bulla, child advocate

“I call it a warm hug,” said Executive Director Stacey Kostevicki of the soothing effect the building has on visitors.

The welcoming, caring people who work inside are just as responsible for the immediate comfort children and their families feel upon arrival.

Advocates like Vanessa Ritchie and Caitlin Bulla provide the children and their families with a main point of contact, a person to ask questions of and a soothing voice to explain what happens next on the emotional journey. They help with diapers, clothing and anything else families might need.

On this day, the two were in the front area near the entrance. Bulla stood near the play area, a smile on her face as she watched the children play, while Ritchie sat in one of the wooden waiting chairs holding a baby.

“Obviously, the first thing you see is the huge play room,” Ritchie said. “They will go right to the train set and are at home the minute they walk in. I think it eases a lot of stress. When the parents see that their kids are OK, that eases things.”

The Kid’s House is an advocacy center where prosecutors, case workers, therapists and medical staff are all under one roof. Having one place for the kids to go means there is only one scary place to get used to. There is one building with one reception area to familiarize themselves with, and most importantly, one group of people to learn to trust. Having everyone in one place also reduces the number of times the children must tell their stories and re-live their trauma.

The lawyers, administrators, law enforcement, therapists and social workers who do the work they do choose a profession where every day is full of heartache, sadness and sometimes anger.

The job of responding to child abuse and neglect, for example, falls to patrol deputies.

“I don’t think anything affects the human side of a law enforcement officer as much as crimes against a child,” Pensacola Chief of Police Chip Simmons said.

The support staff who run the organization are not immune from the long-lasting effects of the emotional trauma they see each day.

“It’s harder than I thought it would be,” said Kelly MacLeod, development and outreach coordinator, who started as a volunteer at the Kid’s House and quickly discovered a moral obligation to work there full time. “Regardless of what your job is in the building, you hear it and see it and it is very upsetting. There are definitely days where you go home and cry.”

Ask them why they’ve chosen a profession where they encounter horrible things that many people pretend doesn’t exist, and you get a similar answer.

“I think it’s a very challenging job, but I feel blessed to be in a position to have it,” Ritchie said. “A lot of those kids we see don’t have positive adults in their lives. I’m happy they get to see positive interaction from all of our staff members.”

The advocates form strong bonds with the children and the families with whom they work. Ritchie refers to them as “my kids.”

They watch the improvement that happens in the therapy wing of the building, where Lutheran Services provide trauma-focused behavioral therapy, used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The children confront emotions and learn personal space through small figurines, hula hoops and a number of other carefully chosen toys and props.

There are, however, many difficult moments where advocates feel helpless to provide comfort as children and family members cope with the abuse.

“I think the hardest part is seeing when the kids are so upset,” Bulla said. “Especially if there is a removal. They just want to see their mom and they are crying in your office. Or a non-offending caregiver is in tears. Nothing you can say can make that better because it already happened. We can offer services from A to Z, but that hurt is going to be there, regardless.”

The recent 3,000-square foot expansion of the Kid’s House has incorporated feedback from those who work in the building. The extra room, new configurations and added amenities have made it easier for staff to provide their services.

The placement of the large conference room on an outer edge of the building and expansion of the medical examination room are just two changes made using staff input.

The conference room is where the multi-disciplinary team case reviews take place. Cases are discussed with representatives from everyone in the building, allowing for the fast transfer of information, resulting in shorter time processing cases and a prosecution rate above 90 percent.

Case workers, advocates, therapists and attorneys share information and educate each other on their end of the process, resulting in informal cross-training of staff. Sometimes a teacher or school principal will be brought in to offer their unique perspective on a child’s behavior.

The hardest thing for Kostevicki is when the team reaches an impasse in a case and they can’t move forward.

“Sometimes this room is full and it’s silent,” Kostevicki said, describing as many as 30 to 40 people who might attend such a meeting. “We talk about cases where you just know something is going on in that family but the child will not disclose it, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

PENSACOLA News Journal

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