Union County Child Advocacy Center is April’s Spotlight Agency!
Union County Child Advocacy Center provides a safe haven for sexual abuse victims
By Julia Terruso/The Star-Ledger
on October 07, 2012 at 8:00 AM, updated October 07, 2012 at 8:05 AM
ELIZABETH — A mural in the entry of the Union County Child Advocacy Center shows a young woman standing before a navy-blue sky reaching toward an explosion of sunbeams.
The mosaic’s message offers hope to those who walk through its doors: children who have suffered sexual or physical abuse.
“We move families from the darkness of abuse to the light of healing,” said Assistant Prosecutor John Esmerado.
The new Union County Child Advocacy Center at 242 West Jersey Street in Elizabeth, minutes from the courthouse, is a state-of-the art facility. Prosecutors, therapists, child protective service professionals and medical professionals are now housed under one roof.
“If we are to correct this deluge of sexual and physical abuse we must make it our unfailing pledge that these young ones are protected from further violation and given all the medical, emotional and legal assistance within our power,” Union County Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow said at the center’s official opening last week.
As cases of child physical and sexual abuse doubled over the past decade, the need for a new home became evident, said Esmerado, who, with Romankow, led the charge for a new center.
The center’s former home, known as “the little house,” was a converted Victorian mansion on Westfield Road which had fallen into disrepair. Closets were being converted into office spaces. Roofs started to leak.
The county bought the new property, at 242 West Jersey Street, for $2.6 million and the facility was constructed by the Union County Improvement Authority for $2.3 million, said county spokesman Seb D’Elia.
In addition to aesthetic improvements, the building allows all professionals involved in a child abuse case to work together under one roof.
Five caseworkers from the Division of Child Protection and Permanency, formerly known as DYFS, six assistant prosecutors, 10 detectives and two therapists share space in the building.
Prior to 2012, the handling of a criminal abuse case involved phone calls between agencies and putting a child through up to 12 interviews. Now that number is down to three, because the sessions are now recorded and DVDs are shared with anyone needing the information, Esmerado said.
In a forensic interview a child sits with an investigator who uses anatomical charts, which the center has translated into 15 different languages, to determine what part of the body was involved in the abuse. Children also use dolls to demonstrate what has happened to them.
The recorded interviews are shared with those involved in the case and then often used to secure arrest warrants and in future court proceedings.
The center investigates about 500 cases of sexual abuse, physical abuse and maltreatment in a year resulting in about five trials and 60 guilty pleas.
The most serious cases are hard to read about. In the past year a pastor was convicted for sexually assaulting two girls at the church summer camp he ran and the conviction, and a Roselle resident was sentenced to 18 years for repeatedly sexually assaulting a young girl over a five-year period beginning when the girl was five years old.
But when it comes to child abuse cases, comfort, trust and optimism are key, said Esmerado, a father himself, whose office is decorated with thank you gifts — figurines and paintings — from some of the survivors’ families he’s worked with through his 13 years.
“This allows us to continue to speak loudly and forcefully on behalf of children.” Esmerado said. “Hopefully we get to a place where we’re talking about prevention and not just enforcement.”
Additional state and federal grant monies as well as funds raised by the nonprofit Friends of the Child Advocacy group also helped pay for the center.
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