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Senate President Assesses Local Child Advocacy Center
By Joe Durwin, Special to iBerkshires
11:29AM / Wednesday, November 30, 2011
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Senate President Therese Murray, center, joined Sen. Benjamin B. Downing and Rep. Theresa Farley-Bouvier for a presentation at Berkshire County Kids Place. Standing is Gerald Burke, a member of the Kids Place board and CEO of Hillcrest Educational Centers.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — State Senate President Therese Murray toured and heard a presentation on the Berkshire County Kids Place, the local Child Advocacy Center located at 63 Wendell Avenue, on Tuesday evening.

Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, and newly elected Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, also attended the meeting, which provided a detailed view into the programs, challenges and successes of the 20-year-old center.

Murray is in Pittsfield as guest of Downing. The Plymouth Democrat was to speak with the business community Wednesday morning and tour General Dynamics afterward.

The need for the center, and the extent of the problems it faces in Berkshire County, where Pittsfield and North Adams lead Massachusetts in the rate of reported abuse, was made starkly clear by Clinical Coordinator Will Turner.

"What's interesting is we're No. 11 in population size in counties in Massachusetts," he said. "We have some 130,000 people, and the largest county in Massachusetts has 1.5 million, and yet we have the highest number, not percentage, of child abuse cases in Massachusetts per year. We are what you might call a small county, with a large county problem."

National averages outlined by Turner are staggering enough — with an estimated one out of four girls and one out of six boys sexually abused by the time they are 18. An estimated one in 10 victims will never report it. Of these, the overwhelming majority of victims are abused by someone in or close to their family, Turner said, with sexual abuse by strangers rare, "somewhere around 1 percent."

In Berkshire County, where teenage pregnancy has been a significant issue (Pittsfield and North Adams had the 2nd and 3rd highest percentage of increase of any Massachusetts cities between 1999-2009), about 60 percent of teen mothers have reported being abused at some point in their lives.

Beneficiaries of Kids Place services were present and told the lawmakers their personal stories of how they had received crucial help from the organization. One mother told of how she had turned to Kids Place to help her son, who had witnessed considerable domestic abuse committed against her by his father.

"I got out of the situation, and I wasn't going to let him do to any woman what his father had done to me," said the mother.

This is another resource the Kids Place provides as an accredited Child Advocacy Center. Left unaddressed, boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to commit acts of violence against their own families.

While Kids Place provides extensive counseling services for children and families, as well as training, prevention and outreach programs, perhaps its most critical function is as a center for reporting and direct intervention in situations of abuse. The Kids Place's intervention team is trained to conduct the necessary interviews and coordinate with the district attorney's office, the Department of Social Services and law enforcement as well as ensuring medical attention if necessary.

Staff explained a bit about the process of forensic interviewing, which is uniform across Massachusetts CACs, and which attempts to uncover accurate information about any abuse that may have occurred to a child in a way that is "child-friendly, age appropriate, and tailored to the individual needs and cognitive abilities of that child."

The staff at Kids Place answered lawmakers' questions.
It was noted that the modern training and techniques for these interviews evolved partly as a belated response to the various "day care scandals" and supposed "ritual abuse" cases in the past, such as the nationally publicized controversies in Massachusetts. These incidents, now looked at by academics as a form of organized mass-hysteria, saw the conviction of a number of individuals for multiple offenses of which they are now generally considered to have been innocent.

The first of these cases occurred in Pittsfield, where Bernard Baran, an employee of the Early Childhood Development Center was convicted on questionable evidence in 1985. Despite strong opposition from the local district attorney's office, a Boston judge ordered a new trial for Baran in 2006. Following a decision supporting his innocence in 2009, all charges were finally dropped.

Murray asked if the increase in insured children since the health-care law was enacted has brought more abuse to light because of the accessibility to pediatricians or mental health specialists.

"I personally think that that couldn't hurt," responded Program Director Christa Collier. "Because what you need on those children is another set of eyes. Anyone else looking at that child and saying, 'There's something a little different going on here' or 'the dynamic with the family doesn't seem right' ... It certainly is helpful to know that a pediatrician or an emergency room worker or somebody else is laying eyes on that child."

"We're trying to reinforce the message that it's everyone's responsibility," she continued, "not just mandated reporters and social workers, it's everybody's responsibility, and not to turn a blind eye to things that could be going on down the street."
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