WAXAHACHIE, TX — When entering the Ellis County Children’s Advocacy Center, children and their non-offending family members are greeted by a plethora of stuffed animals. They have access to toys and a child-friendly movie is playing in the lobby. The calm atmosphere offered here allows children to relax, offering a quiet location for them to go to, when they have been a victim of physical, mental or sexual abuse or they have witnessed a crime. Rather than spending time in the local police station with its locked doors and a squad room filled with several different conversations all taking place at the same time, children can retell their story — their most personal secrets — to a person without badge, gun or handcuffs who meets them at the door with a smile.
Choosing this calmer scenario means choosing The Gingerbread House, a center that opened its doors in December 1999 and named John Wyckoff as its executive director in May 2001. Children visit the home after a member of the Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) contacts The Gingerbread House to schedule a forensic interview. The MDT consists of Law Enforcement, Child Protective Services, Ellis County and District Attorney’s office and Ellis County Juvenile Probation. “The team works very well together,” John said. “The nice thing about it is the protocol we have in place works. We meet every July to revise the protocol based on what the team members believe will be needed for the coming year.
The people in each field may come and go, but the process remains the same because it works.” “These children describe the abuse they’ve endured and/or the traumatizing events they’ve witnessed in detail,” said Teresa Evans, forensic interviewer at The Gingerbread House in reference to the many children from Ellis County who find a safe haven under her wing. “As the forensic interviewer, I speak one-on-one with these young children at The Gingerbread House. We talk in a child-friendly room, allowing the child to feel more comfortable in sharing their most personal secrets, abuse they have endured or crimes they have witnessed.” Many of the children, ranging in age from 0 to 17, and sometimes older depending on the individual situation, do not realize the abuse they’ve experienced is abnormal. These same children do not understand the abuse or the incidents are crimes against them or even that they’ve witnessed a crime. “These children are allowed to talk about what a day is like for them in their home,” Teresa explained. “They get to share their secrets in a nonthreatening, comfortable environment.”
As Teresa and the child converse, The Gingerbread House has the law enforcement officer and/or Child Protective Services caseworker; the assistant district attorney and the district attorney investigator, Marlena Pendley, seated in another room observing via television to ensure all details are obtained. “Allowing the child to talk about the incident or incidents in their own words and in their own time allows the investigators to hear from the mouths of the children what they have seen, heard, smelled, felt and experienced during this incident or many incidents depending on the case,” Teresa said, explaining in detail that each case is different. “A forensic interview with a child could be a very crucial part of their investigation.” And having a representative from each agency present in another room gives them the opportunity to hear the interview as it is taking place, while also ensuring the child only has to talk about the secrets, abuse or incident one time. “They don’t have to relive it over and over again for each agency,” Teresa added. There is no set pattern to a forensic interview.
In most cases, Teresa takes her lead from the child. “I have to make sure the child understands the differences in a truth and a lie, and doing right or wrong,” Teresa said. “I find the answers to these terms in the simplest way possible by asking open-ended, nonleading questions.” Once the interview is complete, the child is returned to their caregiver in the same safe, comfortable atmosphere where the visit began. Each child who comes to The Gingerbread House is given a stuffed animal of their choice at the conclusion of the interview — something they can take home with them. Twelve board members complete the team of caring individuals at The Gingerbread House, with the newest member hailing from Maypearl. Three high schools in Ellis County — Ennis, Ferris and Red Oak — also participate. As stated on their Web site, the center’s goal is to optimize the investigative and prosecution process; provide quality legal, psychological, social and medical services to abused children and heighten community awareness. “I want the facility to run smooth at all times,” John admitted. “Although board members do not interact with the children, they are a very important part of the overall team.” Two founding members, Mike Navarro and Carol Bush, have made the heart commitment needed when it comes to serving on the board at The Gingerbread House.
Although the job at hand is not easy, it is a job that is warranted based on the ever-growing number of child abuse cases. “We’re a necessity because of today’s world,” John explained. “Child abuse will never disappear. So many things have attributed to the increase.” “I am very proud of how we are able to help the children of Ellis County,” said Brad Shotts, board president. “It’s unfortunate that children advocacy centers have to exist, but the numbers warrant the need. Without The Gingerbread House, the process a child goes through once an outcry is made would be much more difficult. Our center is designed to take the burden off the victim, while at the same time help the process of seeing justice served in a timely manner.” The wonderful, highly trained and deeply caring team makes each child feel at ease. That’s what it’s all about — giving the smallest victims a safe haven where they are not afraid to tell their story. But, it’s also a place where the children and their non-offending caregivers can find counseling services. The child is not the only one in need of counseling. A crime against a child really does affect the whole family, but The Gingerbread House is truly where the healing begins.
Written by Sandra Strong.