Southern Illinois Child Advocacy Center Promotes Education, Safety
Tragedy in Mount Vernon led to the creation of The Amy Center and tragedy keeps it in business, but Director Ladonna Richards finds comfort in the fact that the center is educating people and helping children.
The Amy Center is one of only six child advocacy centers in Southern Illinois and it was the first in the region. Named for then 10-year-old Amy Schulz who was raped, sodomized and murdered, The Amy Center serves seven counties around Mount Vernon and more than 200 children a year.
Schulz’ father Dennis and State Rep. Kurt Granberg (D-Centralia) began the center in 1990. Last year, the center served 238 children. Of that, 128 required forensic interviews, the interview to determine if they have been sexually abused.
Richards said this year, the center is on pace to surpass that mark, having already done more than 100 forensic interviews. “We only take referrals from the Department of Child and Family services and from law enforcement, so that cuts our numbers down some,” she said.
The expense of exams and interviews, as well as the likelihood of false accusations, is why the center chooses not to accept private referrals. “We let the investigators who are trained do the actual investigating and determine if there is enough information to warrant our involvement,” she said.
The center simply cannot cover any more area because children and their representatives are having to travel so long to the very emotional and difficult interviews. “We just can’t ask people to drive an hour and a half to put them through this,” she said. “Some of our counties are more than an hour away.”
That creates a problem because there is a strip of counties across central Illinois without any advocacy centers for the children. In those cases, law enforcement officials simply call the nearest center and beg for help. “We cover them when we can,” she said.
The Amy Center began with a single forensic investigator and now has three trained investigators on staff, both because of the client load and to give investigator’s a break between cases.
Richards said as one of the investigators, she finds the job difficult but rewarding. “When you see that look on a child’s face that says they trust you and know you are there to help them, it’s worth every second of the effort,” she said. Sometimes, that means children open up enough to reveal the details of the abuse. Other times, it means they open enough to show that there isn’t any abuse happening.
The center video tapes, through hidden cameras almost like nanny-cams, the interview sessions and provides a dvd copy of the interview to local authorities for use in the case. Center personnel also help prepare children when they will be forced to testify in court and attends court hearings with the children.
“The one thing we don’t do is counseling. We believe that someone needs to be very specialized to counsel children after they have been abused and we refer to outside agencies, as close to their home community as we can,” she said.
The center also provides community education regarding potential sexual abuse and helps teach children to identify abuse. “We teach good touch, bad touch, but also good touch, confusing touch,” she said.
The difference is that some forms of abuse begin as touches that don’t fit the classic definition of “bad touch”, but make the child confused or uncomfortable. Through school visits, the center helps children from preschool age to sixth grade identify and appropriately confront things that make them uncomfortable, she said.
“The problem is, we aren’t even getting into all the schools in our area and it’s still a two year rotation,” she said. The center also offers a pre-dating safety class for children in seventh and eighth grade, covering issues like date rape drugs and how drugs use and alcohol use can affect the decisions a person makes about their sexuality. At first, Richards said, the center stuck to public schools, but then found that children in the parochial schools needed the lessons as well.
“We’re also finding that by seventh and eighth grade, we’re sometimes too late. We find that a lot of children are already sexually active at that age,” she said.
The Amy Center is funded almost entirely through grants, with some support coming from local donations. Usually, the donations come in the form of items the center can use, Richards said.
“WE find a lot of people know that we give the children a toy after their interview, so we get a lot of stuffed animals,” she said. “I hate to sound ungrateful, but there are a lot of other things we could use more.”
Children visiting the center range in age from 3 to 15, she said, and the older children are mostly girls. “Sometimes, depending on who might see them, they’ll take a stuffed animal, but a lot of time we need something to give as a gift tot he older children.”
Richards suggested many of the victims come from underprivileged families and would appreciate something as simple as a bottle of lotion from Bath & Body Works at the mall. “Even a little $3 sample bottle would be something that was all theirs,” she said.
People wishing to donate items for The Amy Center may want to consider items from the following list, Richards said.
“We can always use office supplies or gift cards to Wal-Mart, K-Mart or Staples,” she said.
Other items the center frequently needs are:
gift bags (for wrapping Christmas presents)
school supplies/book bags
toiletries suitable for pre-teens and young teenagers
“Really, what we are lacking the most if small gift items that will appeals to 10 to 15 year olds, mostly girls,” Richards said.
To donate, contact the center at (618) 244-2100.