Task force forms to bring child advocacy center to Northwest Colorado
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Multiple agencies across three counties are moving forward on a decade-long goal to bring a child advocacy center to Colorado’s 14th Judicial District.
Child advocacy centers serve children who are victims of an alleged crime — like physical or sexual abuse — providing wraparound services, connecting alleged victims and their families to therapy and following and supporting them throughout the entire legal process.
For kids who already may be traumatized, the forensic interview and medical exam require special training and a child-centered approach.
“A child needs to be interviewed in a nonleading way,” said Julie Hulslander, assistant director at the Routt County Department of Human Services.
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You use open-ended questions, she said, remain neutral and objective and don’t react. You work to establish trust and give the child the ability to tell what they need to tell, Hulslander said. There is detailed protocol to follow, and it’s essential each interview is age-appropriate. With some younger kids, for example, it must be established whether the child understands the difference between truth and a lie.
But it isn’t just about making the child feel comfortable and safe.
The interview is recorded and observed as an official testimony, and it provides the forensic evidence for law enforcement and the district attorney’s office to prosecute cases of child abuse.
The quality of that testimony “affects our ability to build a case in the courtroom,” said District Attorney Matt Karzen.
From a medical standpoint, if exams aren’t conducted right away, there can be injuries or other medical issues that aren’t caught or screened, said forensic nurse Patty Oakland. And the specific training and protocol are equally important during the medical exam in terms of respecting a child’s boundaries and not retraumatizing them.
All of these things happen in a child advocacy center. And now, all necessary agencies — law enforcement, the district attorney’s office and human services — in Routt, Moffat and Grand counties are working together to bring one to the region.
A child advocacy center is also about families, Routt County Director of Human Services Kelly Keith said.
“We want to meet the family where they are at” as opposed to sending them to five different offices, Keith said.
“I want kids to walk in and have a one stop shop,” Oakland explained, speaking about the forensic interview, the medical exam and therapeutic services. “It’s not a place of trauma but really a place for children to heal.”
Most often, there is only one shot at the forensic interview.
“It is ideal to interview a child one time,” Hulslander said. “You don’t want to have a child interviewed eight times. You don’t want to dilute credibility.”
Child advocacy centers began to take hold in the U.S. in the 1980s as an effort to bring together law enforcement, criminal justice, child protective and advocacy services and medical and mental health workers. Today, there are close to 800 across the U.S.
Ideally, there would be centers in every judicial district, according to Advocates of Routt County Executive Director Lisel Petis. The 14th is one of only four in the state without a child advocacy center.
The closest centers are in Glenwood Springs and Breckenridge. The Treetop Child Advocacy in Breckenridge opened its doors in 2018 and has just one full-time staff member. River Bridge Regional Center in Glenwood opened in 2007 and has about eight full-time employees.
In terms of size and scope, local agencies are hoping to build something in between Treetop and River Bridge, Petis said.
Advocates is essentially facilitating the conversation between law enforcement, the district attorney’s office and the human services departments. And it isn’t as if there aren’t existing services and well-trained people across all three counties, Petis emphasized.
“Every agency is doing a great job with the best they have, but our children deserve better,” Petis said.
Currently, kids who need what only a child advocacy center can provide have to travel to Glenwood Springs or Breckenridge to access services, which is far from ideal in terms of the added stress of time and travel and the need to have immediate access to those resources.
“It’s not that we don’t have the training here,” Hulslander said. “Kids are getting served.”
But a child advocacy center would provide best practices locally, which would significantly increase local agencies’ ability to serve those kids in a much better environment.
In Routt County, the Department of Human Services might conduct 200 or more assessments a year and about 25 to 60 of those would need to go to a child advocacy center, Karzen estimated. And across all three counties, that number would increase to about 80 cases. And that’s a conservative estimate, Petis said.
If there were a center closer to home, it would be used by the entire region, beyond the three counties. And there are cases that aren’t included in those numbers, like teen-on-teen violence, that would benefit from a child advocacy center, Petis noted.
In Breckenridge, they anticipated about 40 cases per year when they opened their doors, Petis said. They got about double that.
Oakland said she knows there is abuse happening in Steamboat Springs and surrounding communities.
“It’s just not spoken about,” Oakland said. “It’s hard to think about an innocent child being harmed, especially by someone they love. But it does happen here. And it happens more often than we’d think.”
There’s also the other side — when interviewers find out an allegation didn’t happen.
“It’s the ability to watch a quality interview at a child advocacy center that I feel remotely able to make that call,” Karzen said. “Did it happen?”
“It’s all about seeking justice,” Petis said, and that sometimes involves disproving false allegations.
In Breckenridge and Glenwood, the centers were funded through a combination of community donations and public dollars, and they rely on donations to continue operating.
“As with all of the stakeholders, we feel we are well overdue in providing this particular service to our community,” said Steamboat Police Cmdr. Jerry Stabile. “We feel this multidiscipline approach to child victims provides the most effective outcomes. If we could lessen the trauma that is imposed on victims when they have to drive three-plus hours to a child advocacy center in another jurisdiction, why would we not want a child advocacy center here? It really is a no brainer.”
With Breckenridge’s center struggling to meet demand and the wait times and travel required to get kids there or to Glenwood, enough is enough, Oakland said.
“We need to be able to take care of our own kids here,” Oakland said.
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