Helping Children Heal

In April 2020, Feature Stories by Jane Porter

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As Wake County’s population grows, we’ll need significant investments to ensure child abuse victims get the services, support and treatment they need; right now, we’re falling short.

A child’s tiny heart drawing, along with the words “I hope you remember me”—“remember” is spelled with a ‘d’ in place of a ‘b’—reminds Cristin DeRonja of why she gets up each morning to go to work at a job most would consider taxing.

“That is [a memory] I will forever hold on to,” says DeRonja, the executive director of SAFEChild, a nonprofit operating the only child advocacy center in the county that coordinates evaluations, investigations and treatment of the most serious cases of child abuse with law enforcement agencies, the county’s Child Welfare Division and the district attorney’s office.

“For a sweet little cherub to say something so succinct but so poignant…how could we ever not remember that child, and all children, in our actions?,” DeRonja continues. “We all have a responsibility of remembering them.”

But, since the center located near WakeMed Hospital on New Bern Avenue opened just over a decade ago, Wake County, home to the largest public school system and the largest population of children in the state, has become in danger of leaving some of its most vulnerable children behind. 

Cristin DeRonja
Cristin DeRonja

Law enforcement agencies, including the Raleigh Police Department (RPD), are understaffed and overstretched. In 2018, only 65 percent of assessments of child abuse and neglect by Child Protective Services were completed within the 45 day policy time frame, according to county data. Four prosecutors in the DA’s office are assigned to around 250 cases of abuse each year, resulting in significant backlog. And SAFEChild’s child advocacy center, which operates on a budget of under $1 million annually, needs to hire more staff; right now, some children have to wait up to four weeks to receive evaluations and crucial treatment services, such as therapy.

“It’s a domino effect,” DeRonja explains. “There are capacity challenges of our referral partners based on caseloads that come in and they have to refer to us and we’re overloaded because they’re overloaded. It’s the blessing of inheritance, the gift that keeps on giving in terms of under-resourced organizations, public and private, across the board.” 

Reporting and Investigating Abuse

Senior detective Alex Doughty, a 24-year veteran at RPD, has worked as an investigator of child abuse and sexual assault cases for 14 years. He’s proud of his unit, he says, as its six detectives—who handle between 40 and 60 cases of child physical and sexual abuse each, per year—sees less turnover than other divisions.

“For the specialized cases we handle, RPD has allowed older, senior detectives to remain because of their experiences and love for the cases,” Doughty says. “It helps to have the attitude of wanting to be there.”

“We all look at it like, ‘If this was my child, what would I do? How far would I want to go with this?,’” adds Eric DeSimone, a lieutenant in RPD’s Detective Division. “Detectives do want to be there, they’re specially trained. All of them go as far as possible.”

One of the main challenges they run into? Protecting children who can’t speak, including infants, and those who won’t. 

“It’s having kids feel that they can come forward,” Doughty says. “[Abuse] is very under-reported because of the safety issues kids have, from feeling embarrassment to feeling they did something wrong or that no one would believe them. It’s a live and learn situation.”

Once a law enforcement agency, such as RPD or any of the municipal jurisdictions within Wake County, receives a report of child physical or sexual abuse, the agency is required to investigate immediately. Allegations of child abuse can be reported by the general public—anyone is considered a “mandated reporter,” and if you suspect any type of child abuse, call 911—but abuse allegations can also be directly reported to the county’s office of Child Protective Services (CPS) in its Child Welfare Division. 

If the allegation involves a caretaker, typically a family member caring for the child, county social workers are charged with assessing the immediate safety of the child or children, including interviewing all children and adults in the household and assessing the environment of the home. CPS social workers may then work in coordination with law enforcement and the DA’s office to share information and determine whether a crime has occurred. 

According to Wake County’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year, CPS received 7,935 reports in 2018, of which 5,009 were accepted for CPS assessment; of those accepted reports of child maltreatment, 92 percent were initiated timely, while only 65 percent assessments were completed within the 45 day policy time frame. Eight percent of children experienced a repeat of maltreatment. 

For the 2020 fiscal year, the county’s Child Welfare Division received 23 additional positions, with six of those assigned to the assessment of child abuse and neglect, says Paige Rosemond,* the division director of Wake County’s division of child welfare.

“With that being said, our challenges are not with the number of assigned positions to assess serious injury and sexual abuse but with keeping those positions filled,” Rosemond wrote in an email to Raleigh Magazine. “There is higher turnover in our two [serious injury and sexual abuse investigation] units than in our entire general child welfare staff. The egregious nature of assessing and witnessing children being seriously injured and/or sexually abused by a caregiver is challenging for even the most seasoned child welfare professional.” 

If law enforcement and CPS do decide to bring charges against an alleged offender, the case could take years to go to trial.

“There gets to be tremendous backlog, especially with all of the restrictions that surround being a registered sex offender,” says assistant district attorney Melanie Shekita, who has handled child abuse cases in the DA’s Special Victims Unit for 19 years. “We probably try more cases than other units in our office because of the stigma. Obviously, no one wants to be a registered sex offender, and the punishments are severe. So, we have a backlog.”

Wake County’s Holdren says the county’s biggest challenge currently is after sexual abuse or exposure to violence is assessed.

“As a community, we need to increase the availability and access to therapeutic services,” Rosemond wrote. “With gentrification and lack of affordable housing in our city centers, our most vulnerable populations are migrating to rural areas of the county. This, unfortunately, creates other challenges,” such as less access to public transit and living wage employment, and fewer therapeutic services to support families in rural areas. 

Evaluating and Treating Children 

Once law enforcement and CPS investigate and substantiate reports of child abuse, they can refer Wake County children and families to the SAFEChild advocacy center. There, children receive services including a holistic medical exam to assess their overall health and welfare and, often, what’s known as a forensic interview conducted by a trained child abuse evaluation specialist. 

The interview takes place in the center’s comforting, child-friendly setting and is recorded and observed by detectives, social workers and other members of the multi-disciplinary response team in real time. The forensic interview is admissible in court, with the goal of preventing children from being re-traumatized by having to retell their stories over and over, a process that also can jeopardize investigations into abuse from a prosecutorial standpoint. 

“We could double the size of the staff at the SAFEChild advocacy center to get kids in quicker,” says Shekita, the assistant DA who also serves on SAFEChild’s board of directors. The child advocacy center evaluated 357 children during the 2019 fiscal year. “I know it’s frustrating for these professionals that it can take up to four weeks and we all just don’t have enough resources to get the families in as quickly as we would like to.”

“People don’t know that SAFEChild is just as important as law enforcement and the DA side,” adds DeSimone, the detective. “It is equally as important.”

Currently, SAFEChild operates on a budget of $2 million a year, which is comprised of funding from state and local governments, foundations, civic and service organizations and, mainly, from individual and corporate donations (see chart). 

Of that $2 million, about half goes to SAFEChild’s advocacy center, while the other half funds several programs that support parents and families (see box). CPS often refers families to SAFEChild’s parenting programs but individuals can refer themselves, too, and anyone can participate in the programs, DeRonja explains. During the 2019 fiscal year, SAFEChild served more than 15,000 children and families overall, a 63 percent increase over 2018.

Each spring, SAFEChild hosts a gala to raise money towards funding operations for the next fiscal year. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and, this year, SAFEChild will raise funds online during a weeks-long campaign around the theme of staying at home to stretch dollars further. Board members will host their own small gatherings at their homes to raise money and anyone can donate to the nonprofit through its website.

SAFEChild
SAFEChild

SAFEChild’s eventual goal, a separate capital project from its budgeted, year to year operations, is to unify its child advocacy center and the facility where the programs are administered—currently located in offices on Morgan Street, close to downtown—under one roof, as well as to hire more staff to meet the need of the county’s growing population. 

“At this point, if this community doesn’t get behind SAFEChild and our multi-disciplinary team toward expansion, we’re all contributing toward a child’s trauma occurring longer than it should,” DeRonja says. “It should never be occurring in the first place but we should be eliminating it, stopping it from the second we’re aware of it, and expediting the response, treatment and healing as soon as possible.” 

“Child abuse affects all aspects of our population,” Shekita say. “Not just poor people, not just rich, not just black, not just white. It’s universal, unfortunately. It’s everywhere, and easy to turn a blind eye to. We’re thankful that SAFEChild has not only its advocacy piece but programs for parents who may need help. Our hope is members of our society will ask for that help, that they know it is not shameful to reach out when you are in need.”

Learn more about SAFEChild or make a donation at safechildnc.org


SAFEChild Programs and Advocacy Center

SAFEChild serves nearly 3,000 children and families through parenting programs and the SAFEChild advocacy center, plus 12,000 first-graders in Wake schools through the Funny Tummy Feelings program. Programs include:
• Welcome Baby/Moms Supporting Moms Support and mentoring for first-time and experienced mothers
• Mens Program A parent education program for fathers
• Move Program Hope and healing for mothers who have experienced domestic violence in an intimate relationship
• Nurturing Program Strengthening families with children ages 4-12
• Plus Program Strengthening families with infants, toddlers and/or teens
• Crianza Con Cariño SAFEChild’s Spanish-language parent education program
• Funny Tummy Feelings A school-based child abuse prevention program for first graders
• SAFEChild Advocacy Center A community-based center coordinating evaluation, investigation and treatment of the most serious cases of child abuse in Wake County


SAFEChild FY 2019 Income: $2,039,357
Individual donations: $646,125
State and local government: $424,963
Foundations: $281,758
Civic and service organizations: $190,783
Corporations: $383,606
Faith based: $27,445
Medical reimbursement/miscellaneous: $84,677
SAFEChild FY 2019 Expenses: $1,814,460
Program expenses: $1,399,549
Development and marketing: $240,993
Administrative support: $173,919

*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story attributed quotes from Paige Rosemond, the division director of Wake County’s division of child welfare, to a Wake County government communications specialist. The story has been updated to reflect that the quotes are from Rosemond.

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