So far this year, 142 cases of child abuse have been reported in Lincoln County, according to the Lincoln County Coalition Against Child Abuse & Child Advocacy Center, headquartered in Lincolnton.
Seventy percent of the cases involved sexual abuse. Of all the reported cases, one quarter originated in the greater Denver area.
Traditionally, when a report of suspected abuse is received by authorities, several county agencies become involved, including law enforcement, social services, medical personnel and mental health workers. The young victim is then called upon to tell his or her story to any number of individuals in a variety of settings.
For example, an abused 5-year-old child may be interviewed more than a dozen times, often by people who are not specifically trained to interview very young children.
Sherry Reinhardt, executive director of the Lincoln County Coalition Against Child Abuse & Child Advocacy Center, is familiar with this problem. "The personnel involved are doing what they are trained to do," she said, "but our system is designed to question and prosecute adults, so when a child who has been traumatized is caught up in an investigation, the trauma is simply worsened."
"The coalition recognized that victims of child neglect and abuse were being re-victimized by the system which was designed to help them. As a mother, I would not have allowed the questioning of my child to continue because I feel that she would have continued to be a victim," Reinhardt said.
For 20 years, Reinhardt was a teacher of severe and profound developmentally delayed children at A Place to Grow in Lincolnton. When she was offered the position of executive director at the coalition, she realized that some of the handicaps of her students were the result of neglect and abuse, the very issues the coalition was trying to address.
Moving from the role of teacher to executive director was a natural transition for her.
For the first 15 years of its existence, the coalition, an agency not formally affiliated with county government, had been functioning as an educational and informational agency to make the public aware of the nature and scope of child abuse in the county.
Two years ago, the agency and county officials decided to expand its role to coordinate child abuse investigations, sparing victims from testifying many times to different people.
Reinhardt, now trained as a forensic interviewer, oversees a staff of five in a newly refurbished facility in Lincolnton that the coalition leases from the county for $1 per year. When referrals are made by law enforcement or social services agencies, the staff coordinates all aspects of the investigation, providing all necessary services as well as a safe place for the child.
The coalition uses a model of child advocacy established in North Carolina in 1997. A multi-disciplinary team follows a child-friendly approach to investigate, prosecute and treat the victims of child abuse.
"We help the young victims find the words to tell their story," says Reinhardt. "Our questions are child-friendly." The initial interview is videotaped in order to reduce the number of times a child has to talk about the abuse, and members of the multi-disciplinary team observe the interview as it is taking place on a monitor in a separate room.
"We can't take away or undo the events that brought the children here," she adds, "but we can give them coping skills and techniques to keep safe from this point and learn appropriate behaviors, a way to live the rest of their lives, in order to break the cycle of behavior they may have become used to."
The child and nonoffending family members are offered weekly, ongoing support as the case is brought to court, a process which can take as long as two years. To make the process easier for local families, Reinhardt hopes one day to be able to establish a satellite facility in Denver.
Because it is a private nonprofit agency, the coalition relies on grants, donations and fundraisers for support. Children, their nonoffending family members and county agencies are never charged for any services from the Coalition. "Funding has become very tight in the past year," says Reinhardt, "even as services have been steadily increasing."
"We rely on the financial support and volunteer efforts of folks throughout Lincoln County to sustain our work," she adds. "Volunteers are needed to help with fundraising and advocacy."