The portable buildings are tucked away off of East Jefferson Avenue in south Brooksville. A playground is just steps away for feisty children who just need to run. Inside, brightly colored carpets and stuffed animals greet children referred to the Child Advocacy Center of Hernando County, a central location where young victims come for interviews, medical exams and counseling.
“The whole purpose of the CAC is to not revictimize a child,” said Janine Hammett, program director of the organization. The center is very much a one-stop-shop for law enforcement, the State Attorney’s Office, Department of Children and Families, the University of Florida Child Protection Team, advocates and any other “pieces of the puzzle,” according to Director of Programs and Operations Patricia Keelean.
And even though the center is somewhat of a secret, 435 children and their families walked through the center’s doors in 2012 at no cost to them.
Before the facility, children would be interviewed or examined at multiple places, including the health department and sheriff’s office, and would often need to take a two-hour ride to Gainesville for medical services.
The majority of cases are related to sexual abuse, Hammett said.
Hammett said that not “retelling the story” is important to both recovery efforts and litigation — a child may not give a consistent story if interviewed over and over again, and the differing testimony could be used against them by defense lawyers.
At the center, children are told their interviews are being recorded, and necessary stakeholders – such as law enforcement – can watch the interview broadcast into the next room.
Children who require medical care are examined in a room with a panda bear mobile above the exam table, and other colorful artwork on the ceiling. The center uses “telemedicine” — a video camera with a zoom lens broadcasts the exam to an off-site nurse practitioner, who interacts with the child on a video screen. This allows children to receive exams without having a nurse practitioner on site, Hammett said.
And while follow-up counseling is necessary, Hammett said the center works to draw attention away from children and teens, by offering therapy after-hours instead of during the school day. If a child is pulled out of the same classroom every week, his or her peers will wonder where they’re going, and why
While the majority of situations relate to sexual abuse, Hammett said the center serves victims of any type of crime — such as neglect, medical neglect, physical abuse and the witnessing of domestic violence.
Both Hammett and Keelean said there has been a “serious increase” in cases and their severity in recent years. A popular theory is a downtrodden economy, and the stress within families that often follows.
The CAC program is part of Mid Florida Community Services and receives money from the Florida Attorney General’s fund for crime victims, a Department of Children and Families trust fund, the United Way, Publix, a federal Community Services grant and private donations. For the first time last year, the center received state funding, and both the federal block grant and state funds have the potential to be drastically cut this year.
“We think walking through the door is the first step toward healing,” Hammett said, noting the importance of donations to keep the programs active and helping community youth.
“The goal is to let kids be kids again,” Hammett said, adding both her and center staff hope the children they serve can be given back their childhood with a little help.
And while children visit the center for very serious reasons, it’s still a place for youth, where toy chests overflow with stuffed animals.
“We go through snacks like crazy,” Hammett said.