Child abuse and neglect is already a tough but important issue for our community to tackle, and JACY House is on the front lines of providing prevention and advocacy services, as well as forensic interviews when an allegation of abuse is made. The current public health situation, where children may not have the usual safe spaces available to them, creates a particular risk and the potential need for even more advocacy and related services.
In this conversation I talk with Amanda Wilson, Executive Director of JACY House, about the amazing work they do, how a forensic interview works, the ways COVID-19 is affecting those programs, and how all of us can be a part of protecting and advocating for our children.
If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call the Indiana Department of Child Services’ Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline today: 1-800-800-5556.
Disclosure: I am a donor to JACY House.
The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions.
Chris Hardie: Amanda Wilson, thank you so much for joining me today.
Amanda Wilson: Thank you for having me.
Chris: For anyone who’s not familiar with JACY House, can you give us a little bit of an overview of what it is, sort of how it came to be and some of the programs and services that you offer there.
Amanda: Okay. JACY House is a child advocacy center that was developed back in 2003 after a group got together late 2002 realizing that we needed better services for children when there were allegations of primarily sexual abuse, but it has grown over the years as we’ve been through the process. We, like I said, opened up originally to do forensic interviews for children here in Wayne County but then expanded in 2006 when DCS regionalized to do forensic interviews for six different counties and we’ve added services over the years.
In 2007, we added body safety programs to our program list and through the years have expanded that 2012, ’13 started use a new curriculum and then it’s slowly expanded to cover pre-K through 12th grade and we just, this school year began using an even more expanded curriculum that is really awesome with kids, lots of interactive kind of things for kids to learn about body safety. And then we added just a few years ago added advocacy services to help follow the families through the process after their forensic interview is complete. And so those are the main programs that we offer at our centers.
Chris: Wow. I mean that sounds like a lot and I heard you say you went from one county to six if I’m understanding right. I mean that sounds like a huge amount of work that you all do. How do you do that? What kind of staff do you have? How are you able to keep up?
Amanda: When I came on board eight years ago, we had a staff of myself and one other part-time person doing the body safety program. That has expanded over the last eight years. We now have three full-time staff members and actually three part-time staff members. We have a position right now open that we haven’t filled, so we have six staff members. We went from doing 150 to 200 forensic interviews a year to, we’re on target this year to hit over 500 forensic interviews, partly because we’re serving more counties. We’ve actually been doing some interviews for Randolph County over the last year, which adds that seventh county. They are in the process of working to get a center opened just for their County. And then we’ve actually started talking to a county, another adjacent county, so that would add us seven another to then eight counties that we are serving through our forensic interview process.
Chris: It’s just amazing and I know that you know, you talk a little bit about your process and programs and services on your website and sometimes we’ll see in the media that an interview has happened through like facilitated by or through JACY House. But I wonder if you could walk us through a little bit of how that process works. Sort of how that interview comes to be, and I know it’s obviously a really sensitive topic and I just want to help people understand what kind of care and intention and the professional services that go into making that happen.
Amanda: Absolutely. In the state of Indiana, we are all mandated reporters, so it doesn’t matter what our professional status is. Anyone that is a legal adult is a mandated reporter. So if you witness child abuse in any way, if a child discloses any type of abuse or if you have reason to suspect that something’s going on with that child, you’re mandated to report to the Child Abuse Hotline. And that’s where all of our forensic interviews come from is the hotline and or law enforcement agencies, they sometimes will call us as well. And so it’s all starts there. And when that report is made, it’s not that the individual is making an allegation that something has happened, they’re just concerned. They’ve witnessed something like I said. The child’s told them something that’s concerning or they just have some general concerns, kind of a gut instinct that something might not be right.
Then those reports are made to the Department of Child Services and then they will then call us to set up that forensic interview for the child. Like I said, when we opened up the covered Wayne County and we did primarily just sexual abuse allegations, we did interviews with children ages two to 18. We are still interviewing children ages two to 18 but we’re interviewing for all types of reasons. Children that are witnesses to crimes, children that are alleged to have been a victim of any type of maltreatment, whether that be sexual abuse or physical abuse or drug exposure or witnessed domestic violence, any of those kinds of things. We’re interviewing children for all different kinds of reasons now.
Chris: We’ll talk in just a minute about how our current public health situation has affected this work. But I wanted to again, give you a chance to emphasize the sort of the role that that interview plays or maybe to ask the question, why is that forensic interview so important in the way that it happens, the kind of controlled setting that you use and what value does that interview process play in sort of the broader process of addressing child abuse and neglect?
Amanda: Okay. In the mid-80s was the first child advocacy center that was developed and they recognize the process being very difficult for children. Children were interviewed in multiple different places by multiple different people with different types of training. And so children’s stories seem to be very inconsistent and it was decided then that it would be much more, and the research shows that it’s much easier on children when they talk about their information as few times as possible, cuts down on the trauma to the child and it gets the information gathered in a way that the child can then be protected. And so the forensic interview process that we use is called ChildFirst Indiana and it is owned by the Zero Abuse Project. The protocol that we use and what it is, it’s as a way of gathering information from children in a way is developmentally appropriate and allows the child to kind of lead through their experiences.
It’s non-leading non-suggestive. The child just gives us their information in a way that they’ve experienced it. And by doing that forensic interview with our we use what we call a Multi-Disciplinary Team approach or an MDT approach and that allows all of those people that have a vested interest in that child safety from the Department of Child Services to law enforcement, to prosecutors offices, to mental health, medical professionals, all of those that are trained to make sure that the children are safe. They’re all involved in that forensic interview process. So they will, typically it’s the law enforcement and DCS case manager that will observe the interviews and be able to gather all of their information without the child having to talk to all of those different people about their experiences. And our interviewers are trained just in this type of interviewing so that they can gather that information from the child.
Chris: It sounds like really important work and really hard work to do. I wonder what kinds of trends you’ve seen in recent years when it comes to Wayne County and the surrounding region through all the prevention and advocacy and interview and support work that you do. Are there trends that that can be identified in cases and then sort of how we’re doing as a community in that regard?
Amanda: I think you can see some trends. I think one of the things that we have to keep in mind is that when we hear that child abuse report numbers are going up or that there’s more families being involved with the Department of Child Service, those of things. We have to remember is that, like I said before, we’re all mandated reporters, so when those reports are made, they may be screened out. They may be assessed and determined that what was happened there was a reasonable explanation to what was going on and it wasn’t maltreatment or abuse. But sometimes it’s because there is something going on and I really feel like a lot of those things are happening because we’re very good at reporting and recognizing sites. We’re doing lots of training with school staff, with individuals in the community, and then the children receive those body safety programs in all of the schools in Wayne, Union and Randolph County now. We cover all of the grades and all of the schools in those counties.
Amanda: We actually, a couple of years ago, there was a law enacted in Indiana called Erin’s Law. Erin was a victim herself and felt like that if there had been better education in her school, she would’ve felt more empowered to disclose her abuse earlier. And so by having those, the ability for children to be able to understand what is happening to them is not okay and understand who they talk to and how they ask for help. We see trends in numbers going up in the number of reports and things like that. But I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we’re learning as a society and the children are learning how to report when something’s going on.
Chris: There’s some sense that now with COVID-19 and this sort of time of social isolation that that might present, I guess a particular danger to those who are already at the risk of abuse or neglect. You know, schools are closed, maybe safe spaces aren’t as available. What have you seen? I mean, how has this affected the work that you do and then what have you seen in the community when it comes to reporting in this very strange time?
Amanda: Currently, what we’re seeing some of at our center and like I said, we don’t see everything because Department of Child Services handles a lot of the circumstances. But when we’re asked to do a forensic interview, we’re that independent agency that can gather that information from the children. We have seen more and seen an increase of more serious physical abuse allegations that we’re doing interviews for right now. So that’s kind of… It’s really kind of sad to see those kinds of things happening. We’re seeing and children we’re interviewing witnesses to their siblings being injured in some way kinds of things.
And so that’s kind of what we’re seeing right now as the quarantine is kind of still going on. What we’re expecting across the country is that when things start to relax a little bit and we start to get back in there, out there in the community and children are seen outside of their homes and they’re seen back in their daycares and their schools and their after-school programs and all of that is that we’re really expecting a significant number of reports because of the things that have happened in the time when they’re not being seen by those outside agencies.
I know our mental health services are doing a great job at working on creative ways to still stay in touch with their clients during this time. Being really creative with Zoom meetings and things like that. I know that schools are working really hard to stay in contact with their students through phone calls and things like that, but it’s still not those eyes on those children every day kind of interaction. So we’re really expecting to see a pretty big jump in numbers of reports once things kind of relax because we know from research that children that are abused are more than 90% of the time abused by someone that they know. And who are they with right now? They’re with their families, with their safe people. What we would hope are their safe people and that’s not always the case for every child. That their homes are not the safest place for them and they love to be able to go to school and go to those after-school programs and be around others because those are safer for them.
Chris: I mean it’s a heartbreaking thought that this situation, which is already hard for so many people in so many ways might lead to that kind of increased level of abuse. And in general, when I’ve talked with you before and I think I might’ve asked you this, but the work you do as a staff is so intense and you’re working with such incredibly raw and emotional parts of these life experiences that the kids are having. How do you all stay centered, grounded, focused in the midst of doing that intense work?
Amanda: There’s lots of things that we do. Before I got into this line of work, I understood on the surface what self-care meant, but until I worked in a field that it’s so very important I didn’t really understand how important it was. And so and everyone’s self-care is a little different. We check in on each other, on our staff. We’ll send little messages back and forth to each other throughout the week just to kind of check in and just kind of understand where each person’s coming from. We do everything that we can within the agency for our staff to kind of make it. We have staff members that are working from home, we’re all working from home as much as possible. And they’ve got small children at home or they’ve got spouses and other people in their homes that are working from home as well. So resource, it’s just a new learning curve for everyone, but we definitely do everything that we can to keep that self-care at the top of our list.
We’re getting all kinds of information through all the agencies that we’re associated with about self-care and making sure that we’re keeping a good eye on our staff and our team members as well and making sure that everyone’s doing the best that we can in the times that we’re in right now.
Chris: Yeah. And you mentioned working from home, I mean you all have an office that like many of us I assume has become a place where people either can’t go or can’t all be at the same time. What have you seen or experienced in terms of being able to continue programs and services that you offer versus having to suspend things and then adapting to new ways of working with technology for some of that?
Amanda: Absolutely. We made a decision pretty early on to have our staff work remotely, our forensic interview advocacy staff I should say. And because we want to make sure that because there’s only three of us at currently in the office that are trained in the protocol, but we have to make sure that we’re staying as far away from each other so that if one of us gets exposed, then we can still be able to conduct the interviews as needed. And then our body safety staff unfortunately are not being able to go in the schools right now since the schools are out. But we’re researching some different ways that we can still stay in contact with the schools. We’ve been researching different ways to be able to send things out that teachers can use then for some of their e-learning activities and things like that.
So we’re kind of pulling together a few of those pieces. We’ve not gotten anything out to the schools as far as that yet, but the teachers were all really excited about making sure that they’re first on the list to be able to get the program back in the building when we go back in the fall and things like that. So we’re doing everything that we can to support them. Right now our body safety staff are just getting to kind of do some research and training from [inaudible 00:17:30] and kind of learn about new ways to do our things better. But right now that’s kind of where we’re at as a staff and then we’re providing the forensic interviews as needed. Anytime that we get a call for an interview, we’re making accommodations for that, separating families with more space than we ever had before so that we can sanitize the building in between families and things like that. So…
Chris: Well, it sounds like hard work gets harder in some ways, but I’m so glad that you’re able to continue those essential parts of it. For all of us I mean, what are some of the key signs that we can be looking for when it comes to understanding and reporting child abuse and neglect? What’s an appropriate response if we see it happening?
Amanda: If a child discloses to you, I think the one thing that you want to make sure that you do is make sure the child believes that you believe them. Whether you do or not, whether you’re concerned about what the child has said, make the child know that you believe them because that’s a huge step for that child to be able to come forward and tell someone and they’ve chosen you. So you want to make sure that you’re a supportive as you can. Listen to them. Don’t ask a lot of questions, just listen and then let them know that you’re going to have to ask for help to make sure that they’re safe. The other thing that you want to do is remember that sometimes there are signs, whether it be a change in the child’s behavior, sometimes it’s when the child starts having maybe nightmares or they have some physical things going on that might be out of the norm for them, but sometimes there are just no signs at all.
So just having that relationship with children, reaching out, talking to them, asking them if they feel safe, ask them if there’s anything that they need from you and just making sure that you make that call. Like I said earlier, you’re not making an accusation, you’re asking for a professional service, you’re asking someone to look into concerns that you have. And sometimes it may be that there was a simple explanation for those things. Sometimes there may have been something going on and that family might need services and that child might need services. So that’s the thing that I can really suggest is that just have open communication with children and make sure that they have safe people to talk to.
Chris: And if we hear something that seems like it merits a call, is that a call to your hotline I think you mentioned or Child Protective Services? Where would you recommend?
Amanda: It is the Department of Child Services hotline in Indiana and that number is very easy to remember. It’s just (800) 800-5556.
Chris: So right now everyone is seemingly doing everything online from talking with friends to schoolwork, to entertainment and it means as a community we’re spending lots of time on the Internet. What does that mean for you from the perspective of safety and preventing any kind of harmful behavior that might happen online?
Amanda: We talked about children being at home and potentially being in unsafe situations there. But one of the things that as they’re on the Internet and maybe unsupervised when the adults in their home are trying to work from home and do other things, children are at a greater risk of people trying to communicate with them inappropriately through all kinds of different apps, whether it be Snapchat or TikTok or who knows how many others have been created in the last few weeks that we don’t even really know about. And so that’s the one thing that’s really hard is because it’s almost like we learn about stranger danger and we know what a stranger is in our community. You see somebody that you’ve never talked to before, we tell them to be careful with stranger danger. That’s always still important. But we don’t think about stranger danger on the Internet.
And these individuals, you will see people take some of these little quizzes online and things like that. And basically what it is is you’re allowing people to gather information about you and then be able to do that. And these individuals that are looking to harm children will do some of the same things. They’ll join some of these little groups that kids are interested in, whether it be like TikTok or online games or things like that and get to know them and the child doesn’t even realize how much that’s happening and then they will gain information about them and potentially have them send videos or pictures.
And so we want to make sure that kids understand how important it is to be open with the adults in their home. That they’re not, and as adults let them know that they’re not going to be in trouble if something like that happens to come talk to you. Let the adults help figure that out because it’s very scary world for kids when they get pulled into that online seat, those online situations where they may not be safe and people are doing things that they shouldn’t be doing with them.
Amanda: Absolutely. And parents need to educate themselves on everything they can about the programs that their children are using. But one of the things that’s the… one of the easiest things to do is just make sure that you’re observing what your children are doing. Set up little pods in your living room or in your dining room or wherever you’re doing your work, where you can quickly look from what you’re doing to see what your child’s doing so that they kind of have their privacy, they can do their homework, they can do those kinds of things. But also you can take a quick glance and kind of look and see if there’s anything that doesn’t feel right about what’s going on on that screen.
Chris: I guess stepping back a little bit to think about the wider community, do you have a sense that there are single clear ways to prevent child abuse that we, Wayne County and beyond should be thinking about or are we doing enough of those things as a community? What could we be doing more of?
Amanda: And I think one of the things that makes it very difficult is we are kind of an instant gratification society. We want to do something and make a big impact immediately and see that big impact immediately. And most people are familiar with the ACEs study and that shows that childhood trauma leads to all kinds of different issues, whether it be mental health issues, whether it be physical issues, whether it be teen pregnancy, all kinds of different things that trauma can lead to.
So in our prevention programs, what we want to do is to, for one, prevent children from being abused when they’re younger. So we prevent that trauma. Or if things have already started happening, bring that to light quicker so that that child and that family can get the services that they need. And it’s going to be a long time to be able to make the full impact that we want to with that. But the fewer children that are abused and experienced trauma when they’re younger, then as they’re older, we’re going to have fewer adults that are living with all of those consequences of that childhood trauma.
Chris: That’s a really important perspective to hear. And just that these lifelong effects can play out in so many ways and that even though it may seem like a hard topic to tackle that it sounds like it’s very worth it. I mean not only for obviously the health and safety of our kids, but for the long-term health of the community as well. You’re a nonprofit organization in many ways affected like others in this time. And I’ve talked to some others who, you know things like fundraising and community networking have just gotten a lot harder when we’re isolating ourselves. What do you think will be some of the biggest challenges for JACY House in the weeks and months ahead and for other nonprofit organizations like JACY House?
Amanda: I think one of the problems is that we’re going to… We live in a small community. Sometimes we feel like it’s large, sometimes we feel like it’s small, but overall we live in a small community and when there’s an economic impact on the community, whether it be individuals, whether it be businesses, those are the people that we depend on to help support our agencies. So as they are going to have fewer dollars expendable later on that’s going to cut into our fundraising opportunities and things like that. But I truly believe that if we all kind of stick together, we find creative ways to keep providing the services that we’re providing. I think we can all get through that part of it. We’re just going to have to be very creative and kind of think outside the box as we do our fundraising over the next weeks and months in our communities.
Chris: Yeah. If someone is interested in helping in this area, beyond sort of recognizing our responsibilities as mandatory reporters, if someone wants to help with the work that you’re doing or in this area in general, where would you recommend they start to help out?
Amanda: They can contact us at our office, we have a website that has a little contact page on it. They can give us a call at the office and what we usually do is we don’t have, because our work is so unique, we don’t have a… Oh, we have somebody that can help do this piece or do that, or we have to be very creative and make it specific individualized for each person that we talk to. We’re very careful about anyone that we have volunteering in our agency. We put through extensive background checks just because of the sensitive nature of what we do but we would love for anyone that’s interested in reaching out.
We have all kinds of opportunities from hands-on physical kind of stuff, helping us with building stuff to we have individuals that donate little lap quilts for the kiddos. They love those when they come into the agency. We have children that do fundraisers for us for donations of stuffed animals and toys, so when the children leave, they can take a little toy or a stuffed animal with them. But we also have individual, we have need for board members and committee members and just general volunteers. So anytime that somebody’s interested, they’re more than welcome to reach out to us and we can kind of individualize that for them.
Chris: That’s awesome. And let’s just remind people of your website address again so they know exactly where to find that.
Amanda: It’s jacyhouse.org.
Chris: Great. Well, Amanda, I want to thank you for the work that you and your staff do to make and keep our community healthy and safe. I think in this time we’re all thinking about that and who does that and the focus right now is so much on frontline healthcare workers, but it’s been really helpful to understand the ways in which community health plays out in so many different areas. And the work of JACY House is certainly among that. So thanks. And thanks for your time.
Amanda: Awesome. Thank you very much.