"We are going to have the entire building open and available for people to tour, which is a rare circumstance because the Children's Advocacy Center is typically not open to people and that's due to the sensitive nature of what takes place there," said Karen White, director of development for Advocates for Children, a nonprofit near Emerson that serves about 2,500 area youth each year through its services, such as the Flowering Branch children's shelter and Rainbows grief support. "We have families that are either conducting their supervised visitation with their children or we have children and families that are there for forensic interviews, so we don't often let people [visit].
"We hope that the public will observe and learn a number of things -- first and foremost, to see that we have this wonderful resource here available in our community and to know how many hundreds of children and siblings and non-offending caregivers we're serving there every year. And, also as a part of that, to understand the need for something like that. It's a great thing that Advocates for Children was able, with the support of the community, to come together to make this facility a reality."
Since the opening of A Better Way Children's Advocacy Center, trained professionals have conducted forensic interviews with more than 140 children, ages 3 to 17, who have reported an instance of sexual abuse, severe physical abuse or who have witnessed family violence or another crime. Youth are referred to the facility by local law enforcement and the Bartow County Division of Family and Children Services. As the account is being recorded, members of law enforcement, DFCS and the District Attorney's Office observe behind a two-way mirror.
"It needs to be a place where kids can go and feel safe and feel like it's a homelike setting so that they feel free to share what has happened to them with the forensic interviewer. ... Before we had [a CAC], we were like most of the other communities in the state," said Patty Eagar, executive director of Advocates for Children. "When a child was the alleged victim of serious physical abuse or sexual abuse or witnessing terrible violence, if they finally got up their nerve to tell what happened to them, they might share that with their teacher. Then they would often have to go share it with the counselor at school again and that would get passed to DFCS and DFCS would interview them once again.
"And then as it went down the line, law enforcement would get involved and interview them again. They would have to have a medical examination in many cases, so there's more trauma. So every step along the way up to and including prosecution ... the child had to tell the story again, and that's really traumatizing to a child to have to do over and over again. So this way, we can eliminate the trauma of the multiple tellings. ... So it's a much better way of handling children's cases and that's why we named it A Better Way."
In addition to the CAC, the Annex Building also houses Bartow County Court Appointed Special Advocates and the Supervised Family Visitation program.
Previously located at 12 S. Erwin St. in Cartersville, CASA's relocation gave the program increased space to train volunteers. Along with talking to the children about where they want to reside, the volunteers also gather information from individuals surrounding the youths to make an informed recommendation to the judge.
Started in January 2007, the Supervised Family Visitation program had been operating out of a rented space at Trinity United Methodist Church in Cartersville. The service provides supervised visitation between parents or caregivers and children in state custody, who are on a path toward reunification. After documenting the meeting, the trained professional submits the information to DFCS.
"We're just excited," Eagar said about the Annex Building's anniversary. "It seems like yesterday that we opened it but we're celebrating our second birthday. We've served lots and lots of kids.
"It's not a building that's ordinarily open to the public because of the confidentiality of it, so this is a chance to throw the doors open and show the good work that goes on in there and show what a lovely place it is thanks to the community who came together and really rebuilt that building for us, inside and out, so that it's a really lovely place for families to come."
For more information or to RSVP to Tuesday's event, call Advocates for Children at 770-387-1143 or e-mail Eagar at Patty@AdvoChild.org.