The Purchase Area Sexual Assault and Child Advocacy Center in Murray now has funding for video equipment to conduct forensic interviews with children who may have been sexually abused.
Independence Bank donated $17,760 on Thursday as part of their community giving campaign. The mayor, judges and attorneys, several members of local law enforcement, bank employees and others involved in PASAC attended the surprise announcement at the Weaks Center.
Without the equipment, local police and social workers have had to drive children and their parents to the Paducah PASAC location for the interviews - a time-intensive process that often put a strain on resources. Not to mention that many times, these children have recently gone through a traumatic experience.
“It requires obviously planning with the parents who have jobs of their own that we have to try to work -- It’s an hour drive. Then the interview can take many several hours. And then its an hour drive back to try to get it all organized to get everyone in the right place at the right time.”
That’s Murray Police detective Angel Clere who often drove the children. She said having the interviews in Murray will make things easier to coordinate. Calloway County Sheriff Sam Steger said not having to drive to Paducah is "huge" for his office when it comes to staffing.
PASAC executive director Lori Brown said 30 children from Calloway County and more than 200 region-wide were interviewed in 2016. She said these forensic interviews are the most important pieces of information in child sex abuse cases. “It gives our investigators the best opportunity for them to gather the information they need and then our prosecutors to be able to take that and push these cases successfully through the legal system."
The interviews, Brown said, give the child an opportunity to tell the story in their own words with trained forensic interviewers and mental health professionals over a closed-circuit TV system watched by investigators. "...They’re able to then work with our interviewer to gather that they gather the information that will help them corroborate or refute the allegations or suspicions of abuse. And then to work with that family to know what to expect for the next steps as well as to connect them to other resources and services that they may need.”
Nicole Widely is a child forensic interviewer: “And my whole job is helping children feel comfortable after an incident of abuse. Not only to gather the information about the investigation but also to make this as positive an experience as it can be for them. This can be the first step in healing. And is often the first time they have talked about either all of or part of the abuse.” She said increasing access to services will change the way cases are investigated.
Bank president Heidi Shultz said organizations like PASAC don't often get a chance to be public about the work they do for the community and praised them for giving children a voice in the court system. "It is unfathomable for us to think about the victims who PASAC takes care of on a daily basis."
Calloway County Assistant District Attorney David Perlow wrote the funding request to the bank. He said his office is at the front of every case in Calloway County. “We work hand in hand with PASAC on almost a daily basis.”
Perlow said one in four children experience sex abuse in their life. Citing Child Protective Services, he says 158 substantiated cases of child abuse affected 224 children in Calloway County in 2016, a number that may come as a surprise.
“They seem high because you don’t work in our field. If you ask anybody in law enforcement, the social workers, the PASAC workers, the prosecutors, they would all tell you that seems about right. It’s a reality. It’s a reality that people don’t talk about… If this can be used for a broader conversation that would be fantastic," Perlow said.
And that conversation is part of what he's hoping to accomplish. "It's a bigger conversation than just prosecuting wrongdoing. It's how can we save the kids. Ultimately, that's what we're trying to do."
PASAC services in Murray this year expanded from two days a week to five. And PASAC is working to reach the most rural areas with multidisciplinary teams reviewing cases in each county. Director Lori Brown says she hopes that creating more access will not only help children who have been sexually abused but will also help address all forms child abuse.