Child Advocacy Center Continues to Grow

Writer  /  Melissa Gibson

In the late 1970s, Lieut. Susie Austin, with the Hendricks County Sheriff’s Department, was known for child advocacy and is responsible for several of the first prevention and education programs.

Fast forward to 2017, her namesake, Susie’s Place, Child Advocacy Center in Avon and Bloomington handled 1,018 cases of child victim crimes last year and continues to grow across the state.

“Children were not being treated in the best, most appropriate way when it came to child victims, particularly in sex crimes cases,” says Director Emily Perry.

“That wasn’t specific to Hendricks County, that’s kind of how it was in general,” she says. “We were treating kids as adults in the criminal justice system. So it really required a new way of thinking about how we could be successful and the victims not be traumatized by the investigation.”

Today, staff at Susie’s works cases from more than 29 counties and several from neighboring states.

In 2011, a second site was opened in Bloomington, featuring an onsite medical facility and in May a third site opened in Terre Haute, serving six surrounding counties and granting some much needed local services.

“I never thought when we opened in 2009 that we’d be where we are today,” Perry says. “If we feel like we can do good work for kids somewhere and we feel like we have the resources and support, we should do it.”

Not all child advocacy centers are the same, but they do operate under a core set of values.

They must work with a multi-disciplinary investigative team: law enforcement, CPS, forensic interviewers and mental and medical health professionals.

The environment should be child friendly and the center must be information sharing to ensure the child doesn’t have to repeat their story unnecessarily.

Perry says what’s known about law enforcement, however well intended, is few officers have training to interview children, particularly those with special developmental needs, if English is not their first language or if they are highly traumatized.

At the child advocacy center, their 24/7 services allow law enforcement to immediately bring in a child suspected as a victim of violence.

Age two to young adults and adults with special needs will find two separate waiting rooms with age appropriate movies and snacks.

“We try to pay attention to the details,” Perry says. “Anytime someone is here, we want to treat them like a guest in our home, and we want them to feel like they are taken care of.”

One issue the facility has recognized is the desperate need for education within the community.

“What we have learned after working 6,000 cases is that people really don’t understand what is happening in their community,” Perry says. “Part of that is that they don’t want to know and understand, and the other part of that is that people have a really hard time wrapping their mind around these really horrific things that can happen, in their home, in their family, certainly in their kid’s class at school. People struggle to accept reality that is going on with kids.”

In response, Susie’s staff created the prevention program, Stewards of Children Training, aimed at teaching adults how to recognize abuse and what to do about it.

“These are athletes, these are straight-A students, these are high socioeconomic backgrounds,” Perry says. “They are not immune to this. They are really good at keeping secrets about it, but they’re not immune, so we need to do a better job of shining a light on this issue.

“It’s not just sex crimes against children, although that accounts for 80 percent of our cases, but kids that are being horrifically abused, kids being starved, head traumas and neglected by caregivers,” she adds.

Another battle the facility encounters is the anxiety and need individuals feel to not get involved.

Perry says each and every person is a mandatory reporter.

“You’re not reporting that you know abuse has occurred, your reporting that you suspect something has happened,” Perry says. “You don’t have the obligation to go out and do your own investigation but to report the concern and then the investigative team can determine if that is founded or not.”

Together, the community can work to decrease the numbers and get children
to safety.

One might think the situations dealt with at Susie’s Place each day would leave employees drained and depressed, but Perry says that’s not the case.

“It’s not depressing to work here,” she says. “It’s the end of the bad and the beginning of the good for a lot of these kids. So, to be in that moment where you can see them turn the corner and they are moving into safety, that’s heartwarming, not heartbreaking. That fills me up. It’s our mission to serve these kids.”

Check out their website for more information on the annual Masquerade Mayhem Ball this fall and don’t underestimate the small donations.

Susie’s Place benefits regularly from businesses, church groups and scout troops volunteering for a day of clean up or donating a case of individually wrapped snacks, among many needs.

Check online for ways you can help at

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