Although Fairfax County Child Protective Services regularly assesses and investigates thousands of cases of child abuse each year, it currently does not have a dedicated child advocacy center where abused children can feel safe in disclosing their abuse and receive assistance and therapy.
Last May, the Childhelp Advocacy Center on Waples Mill Road in Fairfax closed after Childhelp, a national nonprofit that helps victims of child sexual abuse, withdrew its support for the center due to budget deficits within the organization.
Since then, CPS has been utilizing a makeshift interviewing room at the Fairfax County Police Annex, where victims and their families wait in a public lobby to be seen by one of eight police detectives playing double duty as both investigators and forensic interviewers under far-from-ideal conditions.
“There is always other business being conducted in that wing,” said second Lieutenant Bryan Gibson, supervisor of the Fairfax County Police law enforcement team that investigates child abuse cases.
“It is not a child-friendly building at all,” agreed Saly Fayez, director of the Victim Services section of the Fairfax County Police Department. “These are abused children who are being asked to relate horrific instances of physical and sexual abuse. They need a neutral environment they can feel safe in. An office in a police annex in the same complex as the courthouse and police headquarters can understandably seem very intimidating to victims and their families.”
Denise Balzano is a local volunteer who along with fellow volunteers Bootsie Humenansky and Bridget Rainey, has founded a nonprofit organization called the Safe Children Foundation, and is attempting to raise funding to once again establish a dedicated children’s advocacy center in Fairfax County.
“It will be called the SafeSpot Children’s Advocacy Center of Fairfax,” Balzano said. “SafeSpot will provide a comfortable and child friendly environment where a child is only interviewed once by a trained forensic interviewer and then the child and his or her family can begin receiving the healing therapy they need.”
Balzano said that in addition to the uncomfortable interview conditions at the Fairfax County Police Annex, under the current system child victims and their families also are often required to travel to a hospital for a physical exam and possibly a mental examination, then to a child protective services specialist and then finally a prosecutor’s office.
“A Children’s Advocacy Center is more family friendly and designed to bring the multi-disciplinary team including law enforcement officers, psychologists, medical specialists and social workers can better communicate and reduce duplication,” she said. “This is important because you do not want to force a child to have to relate their terrible ordeal over and over again if you don’t have to.”
According to Balzano, CACs exist across the country, and in most areas of Virginia and Maryland, but when Childhelp withdrew its support and funding dried up in May 2012, the local CAC was forced to close its doors. As a result, Fairfax County began to shepherd its young victims through the current channels with no child friendly center to help ease area victims’ trauma after abuses.
Balzano said the Safe Children Foundation is currently fundraising to make the SafeSpot Children’s Advocacy Center of Fairfax a reality, but that there is a long way to go.
“We have about $42,000 so far but we need to get to about $200,000 to be able to really get going,” she said.
The organization hopes to raise enough money to hire some fulltime forensic interviewers, helping the victims and also taking that burden off Fairfax County police detectives. “That will enable my investigators to watch the interviews and take notes, and not have to do the interviews themselves,” Gibson said.
The foundation held a fundraiser in Reston on April 9, and will host an April 13 fundraiser in the form of a 5K walk/run at Lake Fairfax called the Champions4Children 5K, which has the unique distinction of being a certified cross-country race. “There are only three certified cross-country 5Ks in Virginia, and this is one of them,” said supporter Lyman Jordan of Race Resources.
For more information about the foundation, or to register for the race, go to www.SafeSpotFairfax.org.