By Blair Ames, firstname.lastname@example.org
5:35 PM EDT, April 11, 2013
For those who need to use it, the Howard County Child Advocacy Center is "the best of a bad situation," said Howard County Police Lt. Tom Ehart.
From a statewide perspective, Cathy Meyers, president of the Maryland Children's Alliance, said she tells the leaders of other child advocacy centers to look at Howard County as a model.
"For the county to put the dollars in like they have and for the Chief (Police Chief Bill McMahon) to do what he has done to support this is very, very rare," Meyer said. "I can't reiterate that enough."
For the first time since it opened in April 2012, Howard County officials allowed the media to tour the facility Thursday, April 11, as part of Child Abuse Awareness Month.
"This is among the hardest challenges that we as a society have to solve is to keep our children safe and our families safe," County Executive Ken Ulman said.
The center, also known as "The Listening Place," is a child-friendly environment that promotes collaborative investigations and interventions for children and their families who have been abused.
County officials said the center is unique because of the multiple services it provides under one roof. Detectives, state's attorneys, social services, therapists and doctors are available inside the facility for every case.
The collaboration between the police department and social services means children have to go through the interview process only once, McMahon said.
"The whole idea here is to not to make these children go through reliving a horrible experience time and time again," he said.
The facility, which the county leases, is 8,300-square feet. The environment is designed to be child friendly with toys and video games in waiting rooms, murals painted on most walls, and small, comforting rooms set aside for interviews that can last well over an hour.
There are 28 staff members at the center, plus a full-time doctor and therapist. It is open from 7 a.m. to midnight every day, but detectives and staff are on call 24 hours, according to Ehart, commander of the family crimes and sexual assault division of the police department.
The center handled 388 child abuse cases in 2012, up from 300 in 2011. Abuse victims interviewed at the center can be as old as 18, but most victims are 5-years-old or younger, according to Ehart.
The number of cases handled each day at the center varies, Ehart said, but the summer tends to be less busy with children out of school.
The months of September and October tend to be busier because children return to school and talk to school staff about instances of abuse, he said.
In addition to the child advocacy center, the facility also houses the county's domestic violence unit, which was moved to the site in November.
The center, founded in 1991, was previously located in a four-story home on Rogers Avenue in Ellicott City that McMahon described as dilapidated.
"The conditions were horrible for employees," he said.
McMahon said while the interview process does provide information that might lead to an arrest, the center's real purpose to provide a place where victims can feel safe and talk openly about their experiences.
"It's about making sure those victims are made whole again so that they can move on with their lives," he said.
Police asked that the center's new location, which is under 24-hour video surveillance, not be identified for safety reasons.
Ehart said police have not had any issues with possible suspects showing up at the facility.