Writer / Keriann Rich
Photographer / Brian Brosamer
“There was a better way to serve children in the community, we all knew it.”
In 2009 Wendy Rayburn, the Honorable Judge Jerry Barr, former sheriff Doug Carter, Deb Keaton and several other community members formed Advocates for Children and Families (AFCF).
The mission of AFCF is to reduce the incidence of violent harm to children. AFCF’s forensic interviewing facility, the Cherish Center, offers victims of child abuse and neglect a place to feel safe enough to share their experience with a specially trained team of professionals.
“Our primary service is to find out what happened to the child and react immediately by providing resources to prevent it from happening again,” explained Wendy Rayburn, executive director of AFCF/the Cherish Center. “Forensic interviewing is a crucial piece of obtaining the facts that allow the justice system to put the bad people behind bars.”
Currently, AFCF’s Cherish Center is the contracted forensic interviewing provider for the Indiana Department of Child Services, which, along with local law enforcement agencies, uses the Cherish Center as a place for victims and their families to communicate their incidence of abuse with a nationally trained and certified forensic interviewer.
As both the executive director of the organization and an interviewer, Rayburn shares her memory of those first forensic interviews that took place in the Cherish Center.
“At the end of the interviews I remember feeling blown away — we had created this team that was truly going to stop this from happening again. I had enormous empathy for these children, their families and the traumatic experiences, but I knew they were going to get help.”
The Cherish Center’s forensic interviewing team uses a multidisciplinary approach that provides immediate resources from legal and health care to social services. This group becomes the advocacy team for the victim and family throughout the investigation and work to keep the abuse from happening again.
“The Cherish Center’s model works because it combines the right approach with the right team,” said Chief Kevin R. Jowitt, Noblesville Police Department. “It’s proven to be the best way to further the justice system objectives while providing opportunity for child victims and their families to begin healing.”
To date, the Cherish Center has conducted close to 900 forensic interviews.
“This number is very powerful,” explained Rayburn. “This means hundreds of children have told someone what happened to them — telling their story not only helps us prosecute their abusers, it helps them to begin the process of healing.”
Rayburn understands the power of sharing very personally. As a child, a relative sexually assaulted her and she was left with feelings of shame and isolation.
“I had this huge burden by keeping my experience to myself,” said Rayburn. “I knew revealing it would create conflict or even ridicule, and what if they didn’t believe me?”
Rayburn attributes her passion for serving kids to her personal experience. “The few people who knew what happened were too afraid for me to tell, and that only delayed my ability to truly heal.”
Telling her story and hearing the stories of children impacted by abuse reinforce the importance of the work her organization continues to do in the community.
Stopping the Cycle
One of the biggest ways to minimize the number of forensic interviews and incidence of abuse is to educate families of unhealthy behaviors and boundaries.
“Many of the accounts of abuse we hear in the forensic interview process are linked to some pattern of unhealthy boundaries or relationships,” said Rayburn.
The only way to truly slow this cycle is to establish a greater understanding through education. Prevention programming and training is an ever-growing component of AFCF.
With the increase and access to technology, children are becoming more vulnerable. “We now have to be vigilant about who our children talk to at the bus stop but also on social media,” added Rayburn.
Empowering the Community Through Education
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are more than 3 million referrals of child maltreatment received by state and local agencies each year. (1)
For Indiana, the most recent compiled data of actual cases of abuse and neglect for Indiana, posted by Kidscount.org (an online data center), is broken down in the following categories:
• Annual cases of child neglect: 14,580
• Annual cases of physical abuse: 1,958
• Annual cases of sexual abuse: 2,866
As startling as these statistics may seem, they are decreasing as an aggressive movement to change behaviors takes place in the form of relevant and engaging community prevention and programming.
Prevention programming works to decrease cases in multiple ways explained Rayburn. “The more we talk about harmful behaviors, the more children or family members are willing to report and tell what happened to them. This leads to trials and prosecutions,” said Rayburn.
As more of these cases end in prosecution, there is a secondary trend law enforcement and organizations like AFCF track. The abusers notice communities that have a voice, and “they move away.”
Talking About “The Talk”
Many sexual abuse cases involve the scenario of a child being harmed by an adult they know or one they have grown to know through a method called grooming.
In 2013, AFCF partnered with Child Lures® Prevention to bring the Think First & Stay Safe™ program, structured for children in grades pre-K to 6, to Central Indiana. AFCF/The Cherish Center is currently the only child advocacy center collaborating with this nationally recognized organization, known as experts in child safety research and prevention strategies.
The Think First & Stay Safe program is balanced with an approach to this topic that maintains the optimism and innocence of the child.
“If you were to speak with the author of this proven technique, he would tell you this program brings awareness and dialogue to this topic and helps kiddos understand how to be safe, but it also reminds them that most people are good and kind,” explained Rayburn. “Some dated approaches to child abuse prevention models can cause anxiety or fear for kids. We want them to feel safe, so this material does that in an effective and appropriate way.”
AFCF is partnering with schools, not-for-profit organizations and groups who work directly with children. These research-based training materials are supported through grant offerings, which allow AFCF to train leaders who are responsible for the safety of children in some form or setting.
Why Prevention Matters
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. As a child advocacy organization/center, AFCF’s primary role is to respond to allegations of abuse for all cases in Hamilton County.
“We want every child who has experienced abuse to tell a trusted adult so they can get help,” said Rayburn.
Rayburn shared that one in three girls have been abused by the time they turn 18. Unfortunately only half of those cases are reported, leaving thousands of girls quietly living with their painful secret of abuse.
“Prevention matters because when you educate a child about their right to dignity, they can actively be aware of keeping themselves safe,” Rayburn added.
Preventing child abuse from happening again can mean talking to children in schools about what abuse is so those who may have experienced it intimately know they are not alone.
“It’s so important for prevention to have a constant presence in our communities,” explained Rayburn.
Prevention is simply any form of communication and programming that emphasizes abuse is not the victim’s fault. This empowers victims to tell someone who can help. There is great truth in the “break the silence” creed.
What You Can Do
If a child discloses abuse, it is critical to stay calm, listen carefully and NEVER blame the child. Thank the child for telling you and reassure him or her of your support. One of the biggest fears children have in telling is that they won’t be believed. Please remember to call for help immediately: Indiana Department of Child Services, 1-800-800-5556.
For more information about AFCF, the Cherish Center, and the organization’s prevention programming, visit www.afcfindiana.org.
(1) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACF). Child maltreatment 2011 [online]. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012. Available from: Child Maltreatment 2011.