Safe House: Protecting Child Victims

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Inside this little room within Sparrow Hospital investigators try to minimize the trauma of children who have been victims of crime.

The Small Talk Children's Assessment Center is a place away from the hard chairs and tables of a police interrogation room where kids can explain what happened to them... once. Not five times to five different people... once.

"The goal of the interview is to be truth seeking, neutral, to be conducted in a child-friendly, child-centered manner, but to be used in the criminal justice process," explains Detective Annie Harrison of the Ingham County Sheriff's Office. "We don't want to have to re-interview them and re-traumatize them after they've been a victim of a crime.

But this small space makes it tough for police and prosecutors to do their job, so, they're house hunting in the Lansing area.

"What we want to do better, is to have a home-- a location-- where we can offer counseling to these children and families at no cost," said Harrison.

A new building would allow for more much-needed staff. Currently, Alex Brace is the only crisis counselor employed by the county and he knows first-hand how beneficial a house would be for child victims.

"I think the most important part of my job is working with the kids after they've been through the forensic interview process," said Brace. "Just giving them an opportunity to tell the story, an opportunity to heal from some of the things that have happened to them."

It's not an idea exclusive to Ingham County.

"It's a more compassionate way to deal with the child victim than we've done in the past and more effective too," said Jackson County Prosecutor Jerard Jarzynka.

He knows exactly how important having a safe place to interview child victims is. A place investigators and prosecutors can listen to the child's story through an unintrusive two-way mirror.

"You get a chance to assess the strength of your case. You get a chance to assess how good a witness would that child be," Jarzynka says. "Because of that, the cases we have brought have been very successful."

Last year, 135 children were interviewed at the Child Advocacy Center in Jackson and 50 so far this year.

Having a trained interviewer also strengthens cases while minimizing the damage to children who are often reliving a nightmare.

"It's working very well for us and again it's protecting our children from being victimized a second time through the criminal justice system," says Jackson County Sheriff Steve Rand.

It's a cause near and dear to the heart of Detective Harrison, who interviewed about 80 of the more than 200 children at the center at Sparrow last year.

"I think the public knows that child abuse is a pervasive problem in our society, but what I also believe is-- this is hopeful," she says. "We have a dedicated team of professionals that are fighting against child abuse.

"This is our community and these are our children and we need the public's help."

That last part, in reference to a fundraising effort now underway. Harrison says any amount anyone wants to give is welcome, but they're also shooting for corporate sponsors and even the possibility of someone donating a house, which was the case in Jackson.

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