LEWISTON — It’s a place for making awful a little less awful for kids — the first in Maine and nearly 10 years old — yet Keri Myrick is convinced the community doesn’t know her agency exists.

It’s partly an intentional blind eye, perhaps. Myrick people avoid her table at community health fairs. They don’t want to think about child sex abuse.

“My husband will say, ‘You get paid to see and hear the things that people don’t want to see or hear,'” she said.

The Androscoggin Children’s Advocacy Center opened in 2005, one of hundreds in the U.S., as a way to streamline interviews for victims of abuse. Instead of having children tell their stories over and over — to a teacher or parent, to police, the district attorney’s office — they visit the center and tell it once. It’s recorded and broadcast into a room where police and other officials watch.

In telling and retelling, if one detail changes, it can damage their credibility, Myrick said. Or the abuser has time to pressure the abused to recant.

“Some kids just get tired,” she said. “They think, ‘I’m not being believed, so I’m going to stop talking.'”

Auburn police Chief Phil Crowell has been a supporter from the start.

“The whole premise of ‘why would you want a (Children’s Advocacy Center)?’ is making sure you’re meeting the need for the child and the family — but it’s also, each time a child has to tell their story, it’s almost like you’re re-victimizing that child again,” Crowell said. “You see this kind of chart layout that this child has told this story nine to 12 times, where in this environment, it’s told once. Everyone involved that needs to hear it is there.”

In 2008, the Androscoggin Children’s Advocacy Center interviewed 17 children. Last year, it was 170.

This week, the center went for national accreditation that could open the door to federal funding and hiring another forensic interviewer.

“If we had a second person, we could double our efforts,” Myrick said. “There are kids out there to be seen.”

The first Children’s Advocacy Center in the country opened in Huntsville, Ala., in 1985, under the support of former U.S. Rep. Robert “Bud” Cramer.

After several local detectives and a victim’s advocate attended a conference in Huntsville about 15 years ago, “They came back, they were kind of gung-ho,” Myrick said. “‘What can we do?'”

The Androscoggin center opened in 2005 under the umbrella of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Services. Myrick, currently the center’s lone forensic interviewer and only full-time employee, came on board in 2008.

Her interview space is a small, den-like room in a white colonial. The room has a brown couch, a paper easel, a box of tissues and a rocking chair — for Myrick.

She begins by introducing the child to everyone who will be watching from the next room, frequently officials from the District Attorney’s Office, the Department of Health and Human Services and police, who don’t wear uniforms or carry service weapons in keeping with the laid-back tone. Parents are in another part of the building, often with a family advocate.

“My first rule is everything we talk about is the truth,” Myrick said. “We don’t play games in this room; we don’t pretend and we don’t lie.”

Ninety-five percent of the children she talks to have been sexually abused. Some have experienced severe physical abuse and some have witnessed violent crimes. They can be as young as 3.

“It’s very empowering for a child to be heard, to sit and listen and not be shocked and not show any reaction,” Myrick said. “Some of the saddest cases, the kids believe this is normal. It’s been happening so long they don’t know this shouldn’t be happening. This is all they know.”

Interviews typically last an hour. As it winds down, she’ll check in with the next room: Anything she should have asked? Anything they need clarified to build a case?

Officials leave with a DVD of the interview. The next time the child tells the story might be in court; about 20 percent of interviews lead to prosecution, a number that’s been rising, Myrick said.

Much of her work is in the tri-county region and with other agencies by request.

The Children’s Advocacy Center of Kennebec and Somerset Counties in Waterville opened a year ago as the second child advocacy center. The Maine Legislature passed a law last year outlining the creation of child advocacy centers in each of the state’s public health districts, but didn’t include the funds to make it happen.

The old way to deal with sexual abuse allegations, Crowell said, was to invite a child down to the station and put them into an interview room that’s designed for suspects to get confessions. “That’s not an environment that is warm and safe for a child, especially that’s been traumatized.”

He added, “In the way we looked at cases before, if a report came in, our goal was to get that case to prosecution, and that’s really where we end. That’s where any victim’s services ended, at prosecution. With the advocacy center, it’s really taking a look also at that family environment they’re in, providing services, ensuring that they’re not going back in … to be taken advantage of again.”

The Androscoggin center had to build trust and credibility with law enforcement, Crowell said. “That’s a nonissue at this point, but I can tell you, it took some time. As an investigator you’re like, ‘All right, I know what I need for prosecution. I know what I’ve got to get. I know all the different components of proving this case.’ It can be a little concerning to just hand your case over.”

As a member of the center’s law enforcement advisory and planning groups, he’d like to see it expand to include a medical component.

“Keri shared the other day there was an acute sexual assault case recently where (the wait) for a full medical screening was a two-week window. That’s two weeks too long,” Crowell said.

In two weeks, you might lose evidence, he said, “Then we also have the effect for the child, to think that, ‘Boy, I just said something really horrible happened to me.’ In their mind-set, this was the most awful thing that could take place, but yet it’s not a priority that I’m going to get the help right away. If I break my arm I’m going to go to the emergency room and you’re going to take care of me right away, so maybe it’s not as bad as breaking an arm.”

The center is talking now about a potential partnership with a local hospital to try to make priorities like that happen.

It’s currently funded by private donors, state money and the United Way. Becoming an accredited member of the National Children’s Alliance will open up federal funding. Myrick hopes to hear a decision in October.

Her husband isn’t wrong. Myrick has conducted as many as four interviews in one day, and it can be a tough job.

“(Yet) I couldn’t be a schoolteacher,” she said. “I couldn’t work in hotel management. This is the one thing that I do. You feel sad for kids and you feel sad for the circumstances. Our main focus is on helping those children. For me, there are so many rewards in it.”

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: