Walking up to the front door of the Safe Passage building, the first thing you notice is the security. No one gets into this Victorian house south of downtown unless they're buzzed in.
Then you step inside and see stuffed animals and other toys festooning the reception desk. The dichotomy is simply explained: Since 1994, this place and these people have served children who have been physically abused and sexually assaulted.
The current rate is more than 900 children per year. And after two-plus years as Safe Passage's director, Wilene Lampert knows the statistics all too well.
"One in four girls will be sexually assaulted by the age of 18; one in six boys will be sexually abused," she says. "And overall, one in six children will be abused physically or sexually before they reach adulthood.
"What is disturbing is that those statistics have not significantly changed over the years, which means that while we do know how to protect children and support children once they've been identified after the fact, we as a society have not figured out how to prevent adults from hurting children."
She knows that, if a child is not helped along the road to healing as soon as possible, they could face a lifetime of dysfunction and additional abuse.
'I believe you'
Lampert oversees a team of family-support advocates and specially trained forensic interviewers who work with children in El Paso and Teller counties, plus children from areas lacking child advocacy centers. Partners include agencies in the medical, law enforcement and mental health fields throughout the Pikes Peak region.
When children walk through Safe Passage's door, they're greeted by one of 10 to 12 people, mostly women, who take turns volunteering five days a week. Their most important role, though, is steering the child away from talking about the abuse until the interviewer arrives.
"That needs to happen only in the interview room, where it's in a very sound and secure and safe place and where the child is, hopefully, only going to have to tell the story one time," says Lampert, who adds that it's all recorded for any legal procedures to come.
Investigators pursue cases of abuse against victims ages birth to 18 and developmentally delayed adults. In general, children younger than 3 do not go through the traditional forensic interview, although Lampert has witnessed testimony from 2-year-olds who gave a "significant amount of detail about a very horrible event and they did a great job."
"A lot of these kids," she says, "they're so brave and they're so strong."
Strict protocols ensure that the child is not coached by a parent or other relative. Those family members may have the best intentions, but may not be aware that they risk clouding the interview's integrity. Or their intentions may not be so pure — they may be protecting a friend or another relative. After all, 30 to 40 percent of abuse is at the hands of a family member, and 50 percent is by a non-relative the child knows.
As for interviewers, who are members of law enforcement, they cannot display any emotion while the child tells his or her story.
"The only thing that interviewer can show to the child is, 'I'm not judging you, I'm not blaming you. You're in trouble and I believe you,'" Lampert explains.
Sexual abuse nurse examiners are on call to check the child's overall health and collect evidence. And that's where Give! funds can help, she says.
"In cases where the evidence from a child's body is needed by law enforcement, where the medical exam is actually used for the collection of evidence, law enforcement will pay for that exam. But there are many other cases of child sexual abuse that do not initially arise to the level of a criminal investigation, even though it's very possible that something happened. And every one of those children needs a medical exam to make sure that they're OK and so that we can tell them that they're not broken."
After the crisis intervention, family support advocates will refer victims to partner agencies. But they also continue providing services as needed during the court process and afterward.
Through the tears
Safe Passage has never turned away a child for lack of funding, and Lampert is determined that commitment will never waver. She's also determined to support her staff and partner agency members, who hear tales of horror every workday, yet must put aside their emotions to help the next child through the door.
"They are absolutely amazing people and they do incredible jobs and I love working with them. And I love kids. There is a lot of love for children here," says Lampert, who admits that she cries "a lot."
It's not all sadness at Safe Passage, though. Sometimes, a former client will return to thank the staff for their help years earlier. And Lampert says the staff does a "little happy dance" when they hear about a guilty verdict.
"We're helping children give up the story of what happened and let somebody else make it better. We're helping the child get a sense of justice."
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