HUDSON – Over the last four years, hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse have been reported in Columbia and Greene counties, and now, there’s a place where these children and non-offending family members to go for help.
The Dr. Stephen and Suzanne Menkes Child Advocacy Center opened October 21. Located in a former medical office building at 2A Milo Street, the center was transformed with donated paint and carpets — plus volunteer elbow grease — from a pale, clinical space into a warm, child friendly place, where an abused child or teen might feel comfortable.
The center, a child advocacy service of Columbia Memorial Hospital, recently held an upbeat celebration was held by and for those who worked to realize their longstanding dream to provide a user-friendly and comprehensive form of support for abused children. Guests included hospital administrators, doctors, law enforcement, clinical and social workers, and community members.
The center’s stated mission is to combat child maltreatment, abuse and neglect including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and emotional and educational neglect. The nationally accredited Menkes Center plans to provide hope and healing, through expert medical care, and to enhance collaboration among organizations in the investigation, prosecution and treatment of child abuse.
The center provides a home base for a team of 3.75 full-time staff formed in 2006 at Columbia Memorial Hospital. The team includes professionals from the fields of medicine, mental health, law enforcement, the Family Court and the Office of the District Attorney.
A lot has happened in this field since the days when young victims were forced to repeat their stories numerous times before numerous authority figures, from police, to social workers, psychologists, lawyers, district attorneys, members of the grand jury and others. Now, thanks to digital technology and new thinking on the issue, a child may only have to tell her or his story once.
At the center, a child can sit in the privacy of a cozy interview room to tell the story, which is simultaneously recorded and observed through closed circuit television by others involved in the case. Digital video recordings are now admissible in courts, and the child is spared the trauma often associated with repeatedly having to revisit memories of abuse.
Throughout the center vibrant colors cover every surface, clusters of stuffed animals, and children’s paintings, floral artwork, and handmade quilts hang on the walls, providing a welcoming, non-threatening setting.
“The system cried out for change,” said Terry J. Wilhelm, Greene County District Attorney, who has been a prosecutor for 27 years. “Now, the law is more accommodating. It allows video testimony and saves the victim the trauma of testifying to a grand jury.” A week earlier, he said, he saw an indictment and a sentencing of sexual crimes against children on the basis of a video testimony.
According to statistics provided by the center, abuse appears to be more widespread than most people realize, with many child victims suffering alone and never divulging their experience to anyone. The team has received close to 800 reports of abuse since they began their work in 2006. This year, 185 new cases were reported in Columbia and Greene counties.
“We can make a difference and we have made a difference,” said Dr. Menkes, a gynecologist and the center’s major benefactor.
Shortly after opening, the center received its national accreditation from the National Children’s Alliance, a professional membership organization dedicated to helping local communities respond to allegations of child abuse.
If a parent learns that a child has suffered sexual or other abuse, the center can help. It is equipped to mount an investigation, conduct a forensic interview, perform medical exams, provide counseling for the victim and for non-offending family, mental health evaluations and referrals, community education, court prep, and school training. The center treats children up to and including 18 years old.
As state funding diminishes, private donors are needed more than ever to support the center, said Anne M. Schomaker, president of the CAC’s Friends Board.
Anyone who knows of a child or family who might need this service can call the Child Advocacy Center at 518 697-3320.