A hallway at the Children’s Advocacy Center of Smith County speaks volumes without saying a word.
It’s covered in small paper handprints of varying sizes, in a kaleidoscope of colors and designs.
Each outline represents an abused child and a personal horror endured.
Some prints taken from the youngest victims are roughly the size of a saltine cracker.
Physical and sexual abuse is an unfair sentence to place on anyone, let alone a child, said Children’s Advocacy Center director Terri Smith, who walks past the handprints every day and knows they represent only a fraction of the victim population.
“I get really emotional about this,” she said. “Each child that comes here has their hand traced and it’s put onto colorful paper.”
There were 384 children interviewed last year. Since January, there have been more than 500, almost enough to paper the wall that leads to Ms. Smith’s office.
SHINING LIGHT ON ABUSE
The center is among 10 local agencies slated to benefit from this year’s Shine Your Light Community Campaign, a fundraising effort that’s raised more than $1.3 million for 20 local nonprofits since its 2008 inception.
Ms. Smith and her team help battered and sexually abused children by cushioning their journey through the judicial process.
The organization helps facilitate investigations, prosecutions and healing, not just for young crime victims but also their families.
There are 69 Children’s Advocacy Centers in Texas. They serve 40,000 children.
Of those, 67 percent were female and 33 percent were male, according to statistics shared by the organization.
A key benefit rests in the structure of the center’s services.
The center, which is located at 2210 Frankston Highway in Tyler, provides a highly confidential, child-friendly place for kids to connect with law enforcement, social services, investigators, prosecutors, therapists, volunteers and medical personnel.
This allows children to tell their story only once, instead of over and over and over.
The handprints that greet Ms. Smith when she arrives for work every morning belong to actual clients, who walk the same hall so they can see they are not alone.
“The children that haunt us, those are the children we don’t see,” she said. “Those are the ones who tell someone, but nothing is done,” or maybe they are not taken seriously.
Statistically, one in 10 children will fall victim to a sexual predator, of which 90 percent of the time is someone they know and trust, such as a neighbor or relative.
That’s a prime opportunity for emotional manipulation, such as threatening to hurt a child’s family if they tell.
“Secrets are our biggest enemy,” Ms. Smith said.
ON THE FRONT LINES
Desiree Glaze is the center’s clinical director.
She’s a licensed professional counselor who oversees six staff therapists and two master’s level interns.
They work as a team, to support children, families and themselves.
Her office is a wild hangout, complete with stuffed lions, tigers, jungle patterns and plants. There’s also a nook for reading stories and a small table for art projects.
“We use it to elicit conversation,” she said of the various techniques used in play therapy. “We try to do what’s best for the child.”
The atmosphere is both cheerful and soothing, a common objective across the center, for staff and the people they serve.
The center also has a new exam room and a specially trained nurse to help uncover the truth behind what happened.
Many cases are drug related. In some instances, the perpetrator is an adult, who was abused as a child.
Nurse Meghan, who asked that her last name be withheld for security purposes, is on the front line of helping sift through the facts.
The former emergency room and trauma nurse wears workout gear and Converse instead of clinical scrubs.
The exam room, intended for cases more than 96 hours old, is brightly painted and filled with toys designed for hugging.
The nurse checks for injuries and signs of transmitted diseases and then arranges for treatment, as appropriate.
Exams for recent, or acute, cases are conducted at area hospitals.
“I don’t tell the kids that I’m a sexual assault nurse,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I’m here to help you and make sure your body is healthy.’ It’s nice getting to help these kids and letting them know they are healthy.”
People think this type of abuse doesn’t happen very often, but the numbers speak for themselves, the nurse said.
In the last two months, for example, Meghan said she conducted 42 acute exams of both children and adults, at just one Tyler hospital.
The sobering fact is, only 20 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported, the nurse added.
Youngsters seen by the center get to select a new stuffed animal and blanket from a special cabinet packed with cuddly, donated teddy bears.
The center offers educational programs to help people identify signs of abuse, report suspected offenses and help children understand the difference between right and wrong touching.
Ms. Smith said she would like to see people in Smith County throw support behind a grant program that started recently in Fort Worth.
As part of that project, funds are awarded to redo a child’s bedroom, giving children an opportunity to pick a new paint color and furnishings.
The goal is to help erase visuals that remind them of the abuse, such as replacing a child’s bed.
“Many families can’t afford to move,” Ms. Smith said. “I would like to see our community rally around that cause … it’s a really neat program.”
Twitter: @TMT _ jacque
Warning signs that signal child abuse are sometimes difficult to spot, but with education the task of helping victims can be easier, according to the Children's Advocacy Centers of Texas.
In Texas, it's the law that suspected abuse must be reported to the proper authorities, with suggested contact information listed below.
The state's Children’s Advocacy Center suggests a key way to curtail abuse starts with helping a child understand the difference between acceptable and unacceptable forms of touching. Here's how:
• Talk with your child about their body, and teach them the correct terms for their anatomy. Teach them about which areas are private and which ones are not.
• Teach them about boundaries and how to say "No" when they don't want to be touched.
• Give them the proper steps on how to report abuse.
• Encourage them to avoid keeping secrets from parents and caregivers.
• Talk openly with your children and be supportive.
There are certain signs that signal the possibility of abuse. Here are a few:
• Unexplained injuries
• Changes in behavior, eating and sleeping
• Fear of certain places or people
• Changes in school performance and attendance
• Lack of personal care of hygiene
• Engaging in risky behaviors, such as using drugs or alcohol or exhibiting sexual behavior or language
Adults can be helpful in warding off abuse. Here's how to help your child:
• Learn about the frequency of abuse and how perpetrators can gain access to your children.
• Educate them about their body, boundaries and the types of abuse.
• Support their participation in school-based safety adn prevention programs.
• Minimize their time alone with adults and older children, other than with parents or caregivers, and choose group projects.
• Teach them internet safety - don't give out personal information or photos online.
• Stay familiar with signs and symptoms of abuse.
• Know how to respond if something seems wrong.
To learn more, visit www.cactx.org . If a child appears to be in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. For all other cases in Texas, phone the abuse and neglect hotline at 800-252-5400. Outside the state, visit www.onewithcourage.org for a list of resources.
SHINE YOUR LIGHT
2016 MATCHING DONORS
The Clements Family Foundation
Tyler Morning Telegraph
Herb and Melvina Buie
R.W. Fair Foundation
Barbara and Billy Bass
Niblack Charitable Fund
Profile stories about this year’s Shine Your Light recipients ran in the Tyler Morning Telegraph through Dec. 24 and are online.
Thursday, Dec. 15: People Attempting To Help (PATH)
Friday, Dec. 16: Meals on Wheels Ministry
Saturday, Dec. 17: Samaritan Counseling Center of Tyler
Sunday, Dec. 18: The Mentoring Alliance’s Boys & Girls Clubs of East Texas
Monday, Dec. 19: Court Appointed Special Advocates ( CASA )
Tuesday, Dec. 20: East Texas Food Bank
Wednesday, Dec. 21: The Salvation Army
Thursday, Dec. 22: Bethesda Health Clinic
Friday, Dec. 23: Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County
Saturday, Dec. 24: Children’s Advocacy Center of Smith County