So much of collier county appears to be perfect. From the neatly manicured avenues of Naples, to the elegant beachfront homes of Marco Island, it is easy to forget that even in communities like this one, child abuse happens.
“Child abuse is everywhere, it’s not just in Immokalee. It’s Immokalee down to Pelican Bay and even Port Royal,” says Meghan Greene, a Youth Advocate with the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collier County (CACCC).
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and organizations like the CACCC try to spread awareness that both physical and sexual child abuse happens in every community — even those that seem too idyllic to host such horrors. During the fiscal year 2011-2012, the center saw 2,762 new referrals. These are children that were suspected of being victims or at risk of becoming a victim.
“Kids come here first,” explains Jackie Stephens, CACCC’s executive director. “If DCF (Department of Children and Families) gets a report of abuse, they get the child and bring them here.”
“Here” is a non-descript 70s-era office building in downtown Naples. The outside truly isn’t much, but step inside and it’s clear the staff has worked doggedly to make the office appealing to children — especially children in crisis.
“This is pretty much the extent of my interior design ability,” jokes Stephens as she talks about how the staff decorated the beach-themed space. “We wanted something that would work for younger and older kids, and something they could relate to.”
The walls are a sea-foam blue, the chairs are a color reminiscent of kelp, and beach motif murals splash playfully across the walls. In a waiting room, the façade of what looks like a sandcastle beckons children to come and play within it. Hang out long enough and you’ll wonder if you should put on sunscreen.
But the cool blue décor is for good reason. If abuse of a child is suspected, DCF will bring the child to the center, where an interview is conducted.
The three forensic interview rooms have microphones and one-way glass windows that allow DCF and law enforcement personnel to listen in to save the child from having to do multiple interviews.
While the office is set up for triaging those children brought in by DCF, the CACCC also works tirelessly to help prevent abuse.
Meet Dale Lively
After an adult has betrayed a child, getting that child to trust another adult can be a difficult task. That’s where Dale Lively steps in.
“Only a few times has a child said to me, ‘No adult has ever helped me, so why would you?’ But that sticks with you,” says Lively, the Clinical Supervisor of the Child Protection Team.
She is in charge of conducting most of the interviews when children arrive. In her more than 20 years at CACCC she’s learned there is only one rule in getting a child to disclose abuse: every child is completely different.
“Some I’ll take by the hand and almost immediately they’ll tell me what happened and others don’t want to disclose. The most difficult situations are the children that have been told not to tell anyone.”
Lively — who is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week — says that success in her position comes from treating each child as a valuable individual and being a good listener.
“Sometimes they’ll give a small amount of info and see how we respond,” she said. “It’s a process. And in cases where the parent doesn’t believe the child, clearly that inhibits the child’s ability to disclose. A child’s desire to be loved by that parent is so strong. I’ve had children say to me, ‘I love my dad, I just don’t want him to do that to me anymore.’”
On a daily basis, the things Lively hears about can be horrific. While she says that there are children and cases she’ll never forget, she tries to put her work out of her mind at the end of the day.
“I cannot let this effect how I live or how I deal with the next child that comes through. That would be a disservice to them,” she said.
Meet Larry Scott and Meghan Greene
Larry Scott will tell you that he has his dream job. He and Meghan Greene are Youth Advocates at Children’s Advocacy Center. The two split their time between working in Golden Gate City schools, and advocating for victims in the courts, in therapy sessions and at the center.
Scott, who previously worked as an investigator for DCF, has always wanted to work with kids. At DCF he got to do that, sort of. As an investigator, he had some contact with them, but his contact was relegated to mostly after abuse had occurred. When the Youth Advocate position opened up at CACCC, he jumped on it.
“It was the right place right time, but this really is the perfect job for me,” Scott said. “Growing up I couldn’t stand the expression, children should be seen and not heard. I believe children deserve a voice.”
Each morning he heads to Golden Terrace Elementary, where he walks the halls and keeps an eye out for abuse.
“We have a report with these kids that teachers don’t have because we’re not their teachers. Plus, they change teachers every year but we’re always there,” he said.
Greene says that one of the most rewarding parts of her job is seeing children who have come through the CACC office progress over time.
A large part of Greene’s job is preparing children for court appearances. If there’s a criminal case, a child will have to give a deposition in the courtroom — a terrifying thing for even adults. She will coach them through the process.
“I tell them you never know how you’re going to feel until you get up there but we’ll practice.”
And after it’s all over and the court case is resolved, Greene always gives the child her number and leaves them with these words: “I hope we never need to meet again, but if you need me, you can call me any time.”