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Published April 01, 2013, 10:18 AM

Unique center serves as advocate for child abuse victims

The Family Advocacy Center of Northern Minnesota is a serene environment in which children are examined and interviewed following instances of maltreatment and abuse. We talk with the executive director to get an idea of what the center does, and how predators “groom” their victims.

By: Justin Glawe, Forum News Service

BEMIDJI – The hallway is quiet and clean.

Its walls are painted with bright blue skies, flowers, golden suns, butterflies and birds. The hallway leads victims of abuse to safe places, where truths that would cause most to shudder can be told.

They are often children. And they are often confused, timid and scared.

It is a soothing environment that belies the stories of abuse, neglect, violence and victimization that are told there.

It is the only place of its kind in northern Minnesota, serving 17 counties and the Red Lake, Leech Lake, and White Earth reservations.

“People don’t like to talk about this, and it’s hard to wrap your head around it,” says Aria Trudeau, Executive Director of the Family Advocacy Center of Northern Minnesota.

“This” is sexual abuse, and the Family Advocacy Center in Bemidji is home to that clean, quiet and soothing hallway.

“I think that first we need to become cognizant of the fact that child sexual abuse doesn’t discriminate,” Trudeau says. “It knows no boundaries. It knows no socio-economic status, no race, no sex.

“It doesn’t matter what neck of the woods that you live in, or how much or how little education that you have, or if you’re a boy or a girl. It just doesn’t matter.”

A safe place

The hallway sits just inside a glass door, tucked into the corner of a building not far from Lake Bemidji. It leads children to a room with trucks and dolls. Color-splashed walls serve as an art gallery. A table not more than 2 feet high offers a workbench for the child artists; its centerpiece, a box of markers and crayons, colored pencils and pens.

This is the playroom. It is a place for children to be children, and nothing else. The work of discovering the abuse takes place elsewhere.

“We see over 200 kids a year,” Trudeau says. “That number is not high compared to what we know about child sexual and physical abuse.”

Here’s what else she knows: Most instances of abuse, 90 percent Trudeau says, go unreported; most take place more than once and, often, over an extended period of time; most are committed by a person who is close to the victim or the victim’s family; and, most disturbingly, the perpetrator will “groom” the victim to establish a trusting and close relationship.

“Really what that means is that it’s not typically likely that a perpetrator is going to start touching a child right away,” Trudeau says. “They’re going to groom that victim.

“Sometimes they’ll establish a great deal of rapport with the person before anything starts to happen. When stuff does start to happen, which is little, subtle stuff, the child might not recognize that it is even happening. And by the time it is to the point of something that’s really uncomfortable to the child, it’s just so very confusing because it’s like ‘this person that I like so much is doing this, but I don’t think this is what grown-ups are supposed to do. But maybe it is.’”

The abuse begins with seemingly harmless closeness, becomes confusing behavior and often ends with a horrendous act, and the victimization of a child.

“It’s a process,” Trudeau says.

Funded by charity

The hallway that welcomes children was painted by Bemidji State University students who volunteered their time for the project. It is fitting considering how Trudeau’s facility pays its bills.

Taxpayers have nothing to do with the work that goes on here. No federal or state grants go to keep the lights on and the hallway heated. Sanford Bemidji Medical Center plays the largest role in keeping the Family Advocacy Center going, but donations from members of the community, often anonymous, also help.

Those donors help to keep the hallway clean, but they also pay the salaries of the five women who run the facility. Two have the responsibility of providing medical analysis and treatment of both adult and adolescent victims of abuse. Two more employees – a family support advocate, who provides assistance in the immediate aftermath of the discovery of abuse, and a family care coordinator, who constructs a plan to deal with the long-term effects of abuse – round out the team.

Then, there is Trudeau. She is the person who children can confide in. Her office is their safe place, where they can speak.

The numbers

There are many reasons why her center needs to exist, Trudeau says. But the discovery of abuse, often a painful and traumatic admission of victimization by a child still struggling to understand what happened, is the biggest one of all. The safety and serenity of Trudeau’s halls and rooms offer a single space in which children can speak about what happened to them.

Pieces of the investigation and recovery process -- interviews, medical exams, referrals and family support services -- are clustered at the center.

“It’s not about the what and the how of what we do,” Trudeau says. “It comes down to the why for me. I wouldn’t want my children or your children shuttled all over town to give the depositions. I often think, where would children go if our center didn’t exist? How would the services be coordinated?”

In all, 321 children passed through the Family Advocacy Center in 2012. According to records there, two were endangered by drugs, nine were victims of neglect, 35 were witnesses to violence, 39 were victims of acute sexual assault, in some cases, rape, 54 were physically abused and 182 were victims of some form of sexual abuse.

A 2013 study by the state’s Department of Public Health showed that 10 percent of Minnesotans were sexually abused as children.

In a devastating appraisal of the situation, Dunn says those who are abused as children often go on to commit the same acts themselves, representing a disturbing cycle of abuse handed down from victim to victim.

“Children who have been mistreated are often afraid to tell anyone, because they think they will be blamed or that no one will believe them,” Trudeau says. “Sometimes they remain quiet because the person who abused them is someone they love very much, or someone they fear very much, or both.”

In 96 percent of cases, Trudeau says, children are abused by people who are close.

“It’s really a crime of secrecy. There’s a lot of shame and guilt that goes along with being a victim of that.”

That’s why the hallway, the offices and playroom, the employees and atmosphere of the center are welcoming, soothing, unassuming and peaceful.

They must be, so secrets can be spoken softly and safely.

“Sometimes, they haven’t disclosed abuse at all. And until an environment is created in which they feel safe enough to talk about something, then they do,” Trudeau says. “It’s all about the child here.”

Telling the story

Trudeau and her colleagues are not necessarily in the business of investigation, she says. They are there every day to have conversations. This is the distinguishing characteristic of the center, and one that Trudeau takes seriously.

“Essentially we’re the front-liners in the investigation of child abuse,” she says. “What that means, though, is that we’re unbiased front-liners. And so our job is to create an environment that encourages the accuracy of the child’s statement.”

There is no leading and, only if the situation requires it, some asking. In Trudeau’s office, there is mainly talking.

“We acknowledge that some kids don’t have anything to tell, or today’s not their day to talk about it. And we’re OK with that,” she says.

Just inside the glass doors and at the threshold of the hallway is another path. At its end is a conference room with a large television and a table where employees of the center consult with parents of victims, and review interviews that are sometimes later used as evidence against perpetrators. Across this second, painted hallway is a small, hospital-like room with medical supplies.

It is here where the physical well-being of victims and non-victims alike is checked. The center, along with dealing with victims of sexual abuse, also conducts forensic examinations of the physically abused, neglected, those who are endangered due to exposure to drugs and those who have been witness to violence.

“We might be the front-liners in the investigation of abuse, but our goal doesn’t stop there,” Trudeau says. “We are going to give them a medical exam so that when they walk out of these doors, they know that their body is normal and healthy.”

The center sees victims who are adults and children. This fact, combined with their domestic violence intervention program, makes the Family Advocacy Center unique.

It is one of only a few places of its kind in the country.

“The benefit of having us in your community is this is all we do every day,” Trudeau says. “We’re unique because we’re kind of a family violence center. We serve all types of victims under one roof.”

Belief

The signs of abuse are difficult to distinguish. Often, they are concealed with silence spawned by fear and shame. There are no typical victims, and no typical perpetrators.

The secrecy of the crime and the confusion of its victims aids in its lack of detection.

“The fact of the matter is that, it could be my children or your children or your neighbor’s children. We think that it doesn’t happen in our home or our community, but it does,” Trudeau says. “To get that point across is important, and I don’t know how to do that.”

There is, however, one thing that can be done to protect the innocent.

“If a child tells you something has happened, you have to believe them,” Trudeau says. “You need to believe them.”

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