VICTIMS NEXT DOOR: Part 2-b, BEYOND HORRIFIC

.jpg photo of Coordinator at Kid's House
Kelly Macleod, Development and Outreach Coordinators 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

“We can’t turn back the clock. We can’t change what happened. But we can make sure that clock doesn’t strike again.”
Anne Patterson, assistant state attorney

Gulf Coast Kid’s House tries to provide one-stop services to children, families
By Troy Moon

Children who are abused might feel they’re alone, left to fight against unspeakable evils on their own.

But there is an army of caregivers, social workers, attorneys and therapists willing to battle on their behalf. From the law enforcement officers who often rescue children from dangerous situations to the attorneys who fight for justice, there is a coordinated effort between local and state agencies such as the Department of Children and Families to shield and protect children from further abuse and work to undo the harm of the abusers.

“We’re all supportive of each other and work in collaboration,” said Anne Patterson, assistant state attorney who leads a satellite legal team based at the Gulf Coast Kid’s House, one of 25 child advocacy centers in Florida, including the Santa Rosa Kids’ House. “And (abuse) is a big enough problem on the Gulf Coast that we’ve had to expand and enlarge services because we have had so many children who have been reported to be abused or neglected.”

There were more than 4,600 reports of abuse made through the Escambia County Abuse Hotline in 2014, according to the Department of Children and Families. There were 628 cases assigned to investigators with the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit.

As a child advocacy center, Gulf Coast Kid’s House combines all of the professionals and resources needed for the intervention, investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases in one facility. Child victims and their families also receive mental health counseling at the center. The stated goal of Gulf Coast Kid’s House is to form a collaborative response to child abuse cases to improve case outcomes and minimize trauma to the children and families.

Partnered with the Gulf Coast Kid’s House are units of the Child Protection Team, which conducts forensic interviews, medical evaluations and assessments; Lutheran Services Florida Mental Health Treatment, which conducts counseling for children and non-offending caregivers; and Gulf Coast Kid’s House Advocacy Services, which provides various services and programs for victims and families.

Gulf Coast Kid’s House includes a group therapy room, a play therapy room, a closet to provide clothes and other items, a family room, a forensic interview and observation room, a medical room and more.

Between November 2012 and November 2013, the State Attorney’s unit at Gulf Coast Kid’s House closed 158 child victim cases, with a successful prosecution of 98 percent. Patterson and her team also prosecute sexual predators who fail to register. She is a past president of the board of the Gulf Coast Kid’s House, as well as a board member emeritus.

“This building is populated by a lot of individuals who have discovered they have a propensity for the work, and they’re good at,” Patterson said. “We can’t turn back the clock. We can’t change what happened. But we can make sure that clock doesn’t strike again.”

What they see on a daily basis makes them even more determined to fight for the rights and safety of children.

“We respond to the most egregious allegations of abuse and neglect,” said Karena Karshbaum, a member of the Child Protection Team. “There might be physical injuries, we respond to sex abuse allegations and do evaluations at the Kid’s House, including collecting sexual battery kits.”

Team members said the evaluations are an important part of the process to determine a child’s safety. Of the cases seen at the Gulf Coast Kid’s House, 35 percent of abuse reported is physical abuse; 32 percent sexual abuse and 21 percent neglect. Other forms of neglect — including family violence and drug endangerment — account for 12 percent of abuse allegations. A child is abused by a family member or trusted family friend in 92 percent of cases, according to Gulf Coast Kid’s House statistics.

Ethnicity at Kids House
A breakdown of the Gulf Coast Kids House demographics by ethnicity.

  • White 48%
  • African-American 43%
  • Other 9%

“We’re on the front end with the Child Protection Team,” said Stephanie McBride, a case coordinator with the Child Protection Team. “We see them shortly after they’re abused or we receive reports of abuse.” McBride said case workers get photographs and set up medical evaluations, and also do forensic interviews. “We hope it provides a good picture of the family history and story and will let us discover the risks that are with the family and what we can expect if the child remains at home.”

In 2014, the Child Protection Team conducted 392 forensic interviews and 607 medical evaluations. Their findings confirmed abuse in 83 percent of the cases.

The interdisciplinary teams — judicial, advocacy, investigation, law enforcement — also work to combat child abuse with prevention outreach, including visits to schools and community groups. Paula Doty, Gulf Coast Kid’s House prevention coordinator, said the outreach programs educate children — and adults — on child abuse and gives the children tools to report it. She said that while parents often worry about children when they’re out in the community, or unguarded, most of the abuse occurs closer to home.

“Only 4 percent is stranger danger,” Doty said. “Over 90 percent (of abusers) are trusted by children and their families.”

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