“Gail Perkins didn’t know how this child rape exam would go.
The 7-year-old girl grasped her mom’s hand in a death grip as they walked into the Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center in July, recalled Perkins, trained in performing sexual assault physicals.
The center’s cheery teal walls, beach decor and murals are supposed to put children at ease.
But this little girl wasn’t soothed. She clasped her mom with one hand and a crayon with the other as she drew in the children’s waiting room.
Spotsylvania County Detective Twyla DeMoranville talked the girl into a one-on-one interview, in which the child opened up about sexual abuse.
As the interview went on, it became apparent the girl would be the first to use the child-friendly center’s examination room.
Victims who have been abused within 72 hours could still have evidence on their bodies, and a nurse performs a physical exam to get that evidence.
This young girl lay on colorful sheets and Tinkerbell bedding for her exam. And when it was all over and she lightly held her mother’s hand on the way out the door, she said she’d like to visit the center in Massaponax again.
For Perkins, that was success–exactly what she pictured while advocating for the regional center, a place where a child abuse victim could be interviewed and examined in a child-friendly atmosphere.
For DeMoranville, the success came shortly after. When confronted by the evidence gathered at the center, the suspect confessed.
Perkins had long pushed for such a center in the area. The manager of forensic services at Mary Washington Hospital knew the center was needed. She performed 70 child sexual abuse exams at the Fredericksburg hospital in 2007.
And during her training in Richmond, she saw firsthand how a child-friendly atmosphere could comfort a child in the midst of trauma.
The Spotsylvania center opened in May, and more than 60 children have been served.
Before it opened, area children who’d been abused or who’d witnessed a crime could endure as many as 14 interviews–by deputies, detectives, social workers, nurses, psychologists and lawyers.
At the center, the child comes in and talks to one trained interviewer. The rest of the team sits in a conference room watching the interview on closed-circuit television. They use a microphone and ear piece to give suggestions and questions to the interviewer.
“In the best-case scenario now, the first interview is here, in a nice, safe environment,” said John C. Bowers, deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney for Spotsylvania County.
That one interview often leads to better evidence and prosecutions, he said.
So far, about 60 percent of the cases Spotsylvania has brought to the center have been prosecuted. In Fredericksburg, 67 percent have been prosecuted, said Louis Campola, assistant commonwealth’s attorney.
And while prosecution is the ultimate goal, the teams assembled to work with children say it’s actually a secondary one.
They count their successes not in convictions but in positive outcomes, like the traumatized child who witnessed a murder but calmed down in the center and drew a diagram of the crime.
A young victim redecorated her bedroom to look like one of the beach-themed rooms in the center. Several asked to come back.
“This is not just a place where they can come and disclose their most traumatic experience,” DeMoranville said. “It’s also a place where they can come and be nurtured.”
Unfortunately, it’s a place that’s in demand. Within days of opening in May, the center had its first cases. And they’ve been coming ever since.
The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that one in four girls is sexually abused before the age of 18. For boys, it’s one in six.
Bowers said those figures are probably low because most victims do not report the crime. Sometimes, parents encourage the children to remain silent.
“For so many years, parents knew their children would be traumatized by the system,” said Deborah Cooper, a psychologist with the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board. “This kept them from reporting.”
She and the others who work with victims at Safe Harbor hope parents will know their children now have a better option, in which the system will help, not hurt.
“I look at success as a child walking out of the process without more damage done,” said sexual assault nurse examiner Barbie Scerbo.”