Stuffed animals, balloons and shelves of children's books crowd the family room of a brick and wood house in Ellicott City.
But this is no private home. It's the Howard County Child Advocacy Center, where children who have suffered sexual or physical abuse will face some of the toughest questions of their lives.
It's here that social workers, detectives and prosecutors talk with abused children in a setting intended to be less intimidating than a police station's interview room.
The victims who come through the center -- about 300 of them each year -- include such children as the 14-year-old Ellicott City girl taken to the center two weeks ago after saying that she had been raped in an abandoned shed. A neighbor has been arrested in that case.
The girl's mother, who is not being named to protect the identity of the victim, said she was grateful that the difficult and emotional interviews could be done outside a cold institutional setting.
"Anybody that has an emergency or other situation like that, they should go there," the girl's mother said. "It's a lot better for the child. It helped [my] child."
The advocacy center takes the stage during Child Abuse Prevention Month, which started yesterday, as local child advocates seek to publicize the problem and their interagency approach to fighting it.
"I think one of the first things we need to do is educate people in Howard County about child abuse," said Dale Jackson, coordinator of the center. "Child abuse is not economically based. It is not racially based. Yes, it does happen in Howard County."
As defined by law, child abuse is physical or sexual abuse of a child by someone who has temporary or permanent care of the victim. The county's Child Advocacy Center handles such cases along with others in which a minor is physically or sexually abused by a noncaretaker.
Last year, there were 211 confirmed instances of child abuse and neglect in Howard County as defined by the law. Neglect includes such things failing to feed a child.
Howard's center, located in a county-owned house, is part of a coordinated strategy to fight child abuse. Set up in 1991, it is based on a 10-year-old program begun in Huntsville, Ala., and is one of more than 250 such child-advocacy centers in the United States and Canada -- many of which also use a house for the center.
The center provides a central place for those who work on child abuse cases, allowing them to coordinate their efforts in a way that is both efficient and sensitive to the victims.
It works with children up to age 18 who are referred through the county Department of Social Service or the police department. Those agencies generally learn about child abuse through the county school system.
At the center are social workers, detectives who have training in child abuse cases and the state's attorneys. Usually, a doctor is available to examine children and document any visible evidence of abuse.
Donna Johnson, program director for National Network of Children's Advocacy Centers, based in Huntsville, said, "You get a much clearer picture when you have agencies coordinating their efforts."
That, she said, can lead to a prosecution or to the child's removal from an abusive environment.
"It provides a much higher level of investigation," Ms. Johnson said. "It also allows the professionals to learn from each other."
The home-like setting of the center is not accidental. It's an attempt to offer a place where traumatized children will be comfortable giving the kind of detailed information needed to pursue child abuse cases.
Getting a child to talk about abuse can be difficult, social workers and prosecutors say. Children can feel intimidated in police interrogation rooms or cold office settings. They also can falter after enduring the same battery of questions from different people.
4 "That revictimized the child," Ms. Johnson said.
"What [the advocacy center] does is bring the professionals to the child in a child-friendly atmosphere. This is a place that is comfortable for children."
The child's well-being is the focus of the center's work, and not prosecution of an offender though the county government agency does handle the most severe child abuse cases.
Recent cases included one that involved two girls, ages 4 and 5, who police said were sexually abused by a 39-year-old North Laurel man.
The man, who is not being identified by The Sun to protect the victims' identities, got probation and a suspended prison term.
Prosecutors say the advocacy center is an important weapon for them in pressing such cases. But it also leads them to consider what impact separating children from their families might have if a family member is the abuser, and they often will not take a case to trial.
And prosecutors say they must accept that, arguing that the well-being of children sometimes is better served by not pressing for a conviction, which could leave children with even deeper emotional scars when a family member is involved.
"You have to be willing to lose a lot more cases than your colleagues," said Kathi Hill, an assistant state's attorney who works with the center. "Succeeding in a case isn't always winning."
The Howard County Sexual Assault Center's 24-hour hot line can be reached by calling 997-3292.
Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland Inc. can be reached at 461-1277 Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Parents who are feeling under stress can call the Parents Anonymous of Maryland 24-hour Stressline at (410) 243-7337 for counseling. Collect calls are accepted.