The Courage Center

With its child-friendly atmosphere, the waiting room at the Courage Center looks much like those at many doctor or dentist offices. Magazines and books fill a wicker basket. Winnie the Pooh sits on a couch against a bright green blanket. Behind the door of the interview room, children recount memories of sexual and physical abuse.This is where child victims of abuse can tell their story in a safe and child-friendly environment. The National Children’s Alliance has vouched that the children’s center is among the best in accomplishing this goal. After an extensive application process, the alliance has accredited the center. It’s one of about 500 centers that have earned the honor in the U.S.

Accreditation certifies that the center is meeting national standards. It will help the center receive up to $50,000 over the next five years. The center opened in December 2008. In deciding to seek accreditation, Deputy District Attorney Paul Gero helped to form a task force that spent more than a year “raising the bar” for the center, he said. The center has added mental health professionals to the multi-disciplinary interview team that conducts victim interviews. It created a system of keeping track of interviews and their results. And it started a monthly case review for the interview team.The task force turned in an application that was more than 100 pages long. Two alliance site reviewers spent a day at the center and interviewed those involved. “I was ecstatic,” Gero said of accreditation. “It validates what we’re doing as a team and what we’re doing for children in the community — that we’re giving them the best possible services.”

From the outside, the center is nondescript, with tinted windows, a private entrance for victims and only a small sign denoting its name. The center’s “employees” are professionals from a variety of county agencies such as the district attorney’s office, Child Protective Services, law enforcement and Sexual Assault Recovery Services.

If sexual abuse is reported against a child under age 18, the team assembles at the center. One person conducts the interview, with the rest of the team watching from behind a one-way mirror or on a TV monitor in another room. The child sits in a small stuffed chair across from an adult-sized one. “The whole setting is designed as a very child-friendly, warm, safe atmosphere,” said Judy Durham of Sexual Assault Victims Services, which provides advocates for victims from the time of the report through the conclusion of the court process.

Sometimes, consistency and clarity are lost when there are repeated interviews, Durham said.The accreditation gives the Courage Center standing among child advocacy centers as well as some funding to support it, she said.Durham credits Gero for first helping the center get off the ground and then spearheading the accreditation process.“He worked really hard to do that, and we all owe him a great debt in seeing it come to fruition,” she said.

Previously, the process of collecting evidence in a child sexual abuse case was not particularly child-friendly. The child was taken to the police department for an interview, then the emergency room for an exam, possibly the district attorney’s office for an additional interview and then to Sexual Assault Victims’ Services for advocacy, said Lisa Lewis-Javar, Executive Director of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners/Sexual Assault Response Team. The Courage Center brings all of the agencies together so the victim doesn’t have to relive the crime again and again, she said. “We meet the family there and the victim there, and we do everything at once,” Lewis-Javar said.

“We knew we could do better, and we did,”  Lewis-Javar added.

In the United States, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18.