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Children’s Advocacy Center has new director

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Warren County Children’s Advocacy Center officials (from left) Board President Cameron Skelton, Director Melissa McLean, and Board Vice-President Tony Chimenti.

The Warren County Children’s Advocacy Center has a new director.

Melissa McLean took over the role in October after an extensive search.

“There was a vacancy,” CAC board vice-president Tony Chimenti said. “We had to evaluate the special needs that we have for this position.”

In addition to the responsibilities of being able to interview children victims and witnesses, the director handles budgeting and fund-raising, including grant writing.

“We don’t charge families to utilize the services on-site,” board president Cameron Skelton said. “We really rely on those grants.”

The key, though, was the children. “I have a passion to make sure children are safe,” McLean said. “Warren is a great community. We have big hearts for children, but the reality is that children experience horrific circumstances and trauma all the time — even in our community.”

“I am blessed that I experienced a wonderful childhood,” she said. Now, she wants to help other children have better childhoods.

“My sincere hope would be in a few years our child abuse statistics would be so low that there will be no need for a CAC,” McLean said.

But, for now, there is that need. And she said she is passionate about filling that need.

“We were looking for someone with that passion,” Skelton said. “We knew it would be a tough position. Here’s a candidate and an individual we know will be passionate about the job, keeping children safe, and bettering the community.”

The Warren County CAC is in its second year.

“It is a neutral, child-friendly location,” Chimenti said. “We have been successful.”

He said the agency handled more than 70 cases in its first year. “Every interview of witnesses and victims under 18 has been conducted there.”

The CAC was not created to supplant any existing organization. “It’s not a duplication of services,” Chimenti said.

“We’re working with all the organizations in the community to make sure we’re not duplicating those services,” Skelton said.

Like many entities that rely heavily on grant funding, the CAC often comes up short in one area. “With a lot of grants, they don’t like to pay for operational costs,” Skelton said. “We struggle with that.”

The difference is made up through community donations.

“Our community has been very generous,” she said. “We’ve been very blessed.”

“The location has been really great for us,” Skelton said. The facility is located on St. Clair Street in Warren’s South Side. It is accessible by bus and even walking.

“The space is perfect for our services and our needs,” she said. “We have a great relationship with the Economic Opportunities Council.” The Warren-Forest EOC owns the building.

In evaluating the space, McLean said, “safety can’t be discounted.”

“We know that children open up more when they feel safe,” she said. “When children experience adverse childhood experiences, the sooner we can create a safe place for them to address their trauma, the sooner they can start to heal.”

“We’re trying to create that safe space,” Skelton said.

“The physical space, the atmosphere… it’s all geared to the child,” Chimenti said.

Now that McLean has had the opportunity to go through the physical space and the organizational operations and make sure they match what she wants to do as director, training is next.

She will attend forensic interviewing training in Alabama. That will be followed by a period of peer review and critiques.

“It will take a few months for her to go through that process,” Skelton said.

Role of a CAC

When there are allegations of child abuse or neglect, a Child Advocacy Center brings together all of the necessary experts under one roof.

There is no need for a child, possibly already traumatized, to tell his or her story to a teacher, then a counselor, a caseworker, maybe visit multiple hospitals, speak with police, prosecutors, and eventually have to testify in court.

The person receiving the initial complaint and passing it on will be put in touch with the CAC from the beginning. The child will be interviewed by one person who is trained in juvenile forensic interviewing and child development. Police and prosecutors may watch that interview without being in the room. Any medical needs will be identified at the CAC and the child will be sent to one facility for all the necessary treatment and evaluation.

“CACs reduce the number of people a child has to talk to after being abused and bring everyone who needs to learn about the case and provide services to the child and family under one roof,” according to the Warren County CAC website.

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