Advocacy center fights child abuse

Posted 9/17/20

There are some things in life which are just difficult to broach as a subject, much less to discuss. Child abuse is one of those issues.

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Advocacy center fights child abuse

The reception and socialization area at the center.
The reception and socialization area at the center.
(Monitor photo by John Arbter)

There are some things in life which are just difficult to broach as a subject, much less to discuss. Child abuse is one of those issues. 

Abuse is not a passing event. The psychological damage from abuse can be life-long, sustained and tragic.

As Imelda Tatsch, executive director of the Northeast Texas Child Advocacy Center stated, “Abuse changes them, shapes them and becomes part of them.”    

Tatsch noted that ‘who the abusers are’ practically paralyzes the young victims, placing them in a lose-lose situation. Fear and shame prevent a victim from speaking up.

The young victims needed advocates to help them speak out and facilitation which accommodates children in the grown-up world of criminal justice. 

The nation has been gripped by this epidemic for a long time and has only recently begun to fight back. 

How prevalent is child abuse? According to the Texas Child Advocacy Center, one in five children will suffer abuse at the hands of adults in their formative years. If a child is in school with a class of 25 kids, five of them are likely being abused. 

The statistics are nauseating. 

Little girls are slightly (1 in 4 girls, 1 in 6 boys) more likely to be abused. Age ranges of abused children are from newborn to age 5, age 6 to 12, and 13 to 17.  The age group between 6 and 12 years old is the most frequently abused. 

At the exact time when children are most rapidly developing their mind, personalities and sense of well-being, when they most need the ability to trust the adults in their lives, they are at the greatest risk for abuse. 

They are in effect being betrayed.

There are no explanations revealed in the statistics. Ethnicity plays no role in abuse. The number of abused children equals the same percentages as their racial group within society.  

What is revealed is frightening. Most abusers are adults well-known to the children they abuse: family members, extended family, family friends and adults who, due to their profession or community involvement, are placed in areas of responsibility over children. 

Individual child advocacy centers first opened in Huntsville, Ala. 40 years ago. The Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas was founded in 1994 to coordinate all state-wide efforts. The battle against child abuse had been joined. 

That original collection of 13 advocacy centers in the state is now 71 advocacy centers. Tatsch leads the Northeast Child Advocacy Center located just south of Winnsboro. It opened in 1998. 

“We provide a safe, child-friendly environment for children who have been hurt, for them to share their experience,” Tatsch explained. “We focus on reducing trauma.”

The center, which serves eight counties, including Wood, and 27 school districts, focuses on three groups of youngsters: sexual abuse victims, physical abuse victims and witnesses to violent crime. 

The advocacy center is a place of facilitation and care. As Tatsch explains, once an incident is reported either through the statewide hotline or directly to the local center, center employees will coordinate with local law enforcement, Child Protective Services (CPS) and legal representation to coordinate a visit by the victim to the center.

Upon entering the center, the child will spend some socialization time with a trained interviewer. The interviewer and the child will then proceed to a room with two comfortable chairs and a small table. The counselor will listen as the child explains what transpired. 

The interview is audio and video recorded. In an adjacent room, police, CPS and legal representatives are observing the interview.

The video interviews become powerful tools should the incident lead to court proceedings. 

A medical screening may be part of that initial visit, based on the nature of the abuse, and only if requested by law enforcement.  

Additionally, a range of aftercare services are available either at the center or through contracted community counselors.

As Tatsch explains, “Child abuse does not happen to just the child, it happens to the victim’s whole family and extended family.” Coping skills, grief and guilt counseling are subjects discussed through family advocates. 

Tatsch’s journey to lead the center began innocently enough. She and her husband, Glenn, were relocating to be in a town centrally located between Longview and Dallas. They settled in Winnsboro, making many manageable trips to visit their children and grandchildren.

Friends suggested volunteer work at the center in 1999. Tatsch had a detailed plan for her continuing education, but as she describes, “I make my plan, but God directs my steps.” Work at the center became a full-time position as parenting class facilitator. 

With the sudden passing of the center’s founding director, Jerry Edwards, in 2012, Tatsch was selected to lead the center. Edwards had recommended her as a future executive director.

Tatsch is frank about the toll that hearing of so much tragedy can have.

“Employees may have to take what we call Wellness Days to ensure we rebuild our personal constitution to continue this work,” she explained. Camaraderie, shared meals and faith maintain strength among the staff.

The battle against child abuse is a full-fledged war. Jenna’s Law, a national watershed law passed by the Texas legislature in 2009, now mandates training for all educators on recognizing the signs of child abuse. The creation of the statewide advocacy center has generated initiatives such as the “My Safe Space” program, which repaints and redecorates a victim’s bedroom. 

Despite laws and programs, the sheer amount of abuse committed in communities is daunting.  Tatsch, however, did not flinch when asked if child abuse could someday be eliminated.

The key, Tatsch believes, to winning the war against child abuse is threefold: taking care of each abuse victim, increasing awareness of this plague and training children to exercise empowerment over their bodies.   

There are no doubt friends, neighbors, family members and acquaintances in East Texas who have been victimized by this scourge. This is a fight worth fighting.