Children’s Advocacy Center adds medical-exam room for sexual-assault cases

By Tammy Keith Published December 12, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Tess Fletcher, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance of North Central Arkansas, holds a stuffed animal in the new medical-exam room in the Central Arkansas Children’s Advocacy Center, 707 Parkway St. in downtown Conway. The room was made possible by a piece of equipment, left, called a colposcope, which was purchased by the Conway Regional Health Foundation. Fletcher said the instrument allows for noninvasive exams of children who are suspected to have been sexually abused. An open house is set for 2-4 p.m. Sunday.

CONWAY — Framed photographs of butterflies hang on the wall, cuddly stuffed animals are piled above the cabinets, and the colors are bright and cheery — but the reason the room exists isn’t.

The Central Arkansas Children’s Advocacy Center in downtown Conway opened a medical-exam room just a few weeks ago for children who are suspected of having been sexually abused, said Tess Fletcher, executive director.

The room has already been used to examine two children, she said.

The center, at 707 Parkway St., serves as a neutral, child-friendly place to do interviews when a call is made to the state’s child-abuse hotline about physical or sexual abuse, and now children can receive medical exams, if needed.

Fletcher, who led the push for the advocacy center, said the exam room makes it possible to provide abused children with several services in one place.

“The ultimate goal of the CAC is for the child to be able to receive all needed services in a child-friendly environment — whether that’s the interview, medical, mental health,” Fletcher said. “So by being able to have medical on-site now, that’s just one step closer for us to be able to have these children receive all these services in one location.”

The center is utilized by the five counties the Children Advocacy Alliance of North Central Arkansas serves: Faulkner, Conway, Pope, Van Buren and Searcy.

The alliance is a partnership between the Court Appointed Special Advocates of the 20th Judicial District and the Central Arkansas Children’s Advocacy Center.

“We started a campaign to raise funds for this room,” Fletcher said, but it was clear it would take a long time.

The big holdup, Fletcher said, was a major piece of equipment called a colposcope that costs $17,000 retail.

The Conway Regional Health Foundation purchased the piece of equipment, she said.

“We went and talked to [CEO Jim Lambert] and Lori Ross [with the foundation] about the center and the needs we had,” Fletcher said.

“They were very receptive and said they would see what they could do, and here we are.”

“A lot of people think sexual exams on a child are really, really scary,” she said, but it isn’t the same as a gynecological exam.

The equipment magnifies and takes pictures so that an exam isn’t invasive for the child, Fletcher said.

“It’s a lot less scary for the child; it’s not invasive,” Fletcher said. “Another misconception is that we do sexual exams to collect evidence. A rape kit may be collected, but it’s really to let that child know they’re OK. This terrible, terrible thing happened to them, but they’re OK.”

Dr. Karen Farst of Little Rock is the medical director, and Deanna Rogers of

Romance is the sexual-abuse nurse examiner.

Fletcher said the colposcope takes photos for documentation. The doctor or nurse also checks the child’s ears and eyes.

The child is covered with a fleece blanket for the exam, then gets to take it home, Fletcher said.

“They get to pick out a stuffed animal before they leave,” she said, looking at the stack above the cabinets.

Although blankets and stuffed animals are in good supply, the center has other needs.

“Something we didn’t think about, we need a constant supply of [brand-new] underwear and diapers, if we have to collect evidence or clothing,” she said.

Prior to the medical room opening, children were sent to Little Rock to be examined. It was hard for some parents in rural areas to get there, she said.

Farst said “the addition of the medical [exam] room at the CAC in Conway brings an added level of service to children and families in the Conway region who are having to walk through the difficult time of an investigation for possible child sexual abuse.”

She said it’s the same level of examination that would be done if the child traveled to Little Rock and was seen in the child-abuse clinic at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

Fletcher said if someone calls the Arkansas child-abuse hotline, the proper authorities are contacted, whether the Arkansas State Police or the state Department of Human Services.

“They have the option to contact our center to be interviewed,” she said.

Sometimes children involved in court cases are interviewed at the center, too, but the child doesn’t have to be involved in a court case.

The center serves children “birth through 18,” Fletcher said. So far, the youngest child interviewed was 2, she said.

“It depends on their verbal skills,” she said.

The child is interviewed by an advocacy-center staff member or a trained volunteer.

Law-enforcement officials watch on a computer screen in another room, and the interviewer wears an earpiece. If they want more information or have another question, they can prompt the interviewer.

Also, the law-enforcement investigator can zoom in to see the child’s facial expressions and take pictures. The investigator takes the DVD with him when he leaves, Fletcher said.

Mindy Scales, staff interviewer, started working in the center in April.

“I like kids; I’ve always just had a way with kids,” she said. “Kids like to talk. You just have to get on their level, and they’ll tell you everything.”

Sometimes hearing everything is hard to forget.

“It depends on the case, what the allegations are, what was disclosed and what action is being taken,” Scales said.

Although it’s hard not to take the work home, Scales said, she knows she’s helping the children.

“I know at the end of the day what I’m doing is a positive outcome in a negative situation,” she said.

Scales said the number of interviews vary — she might have 16 interviews one week and two or three the next.

A waiting room in the center is available for the nonoffending parent or guardian. The room includes a large fish tank with colorful fish, a couch, child-sized chairs, children’s books and a few toys.

The advocacy staff finds out what the parent or guardian needs, whether it’s services at the Women’s Shelter of Central Arkansas or access to a protection order, mental health services, etc.

Community groups and churches helped furnish rooms in the center.

A group at First United Methodist Church furnished and decorated a second waiting room. A teen waiting room is available, too.

Sometimes an interview occurs the same day as the medical exam; other times, they are done at different times, Fletcher said.

“If contact had happened within 72 hours, [we] try to have [the interview and exam] happen within the same day,” she said.

In the reception area, a large tree mural on the wall has hundreds of paper leaves attached to its painted limbs, each leaf representing a child interviewed.

Since the first interview on Oct. 18, 2010, “we’ve interviewed more than 600 children” from the five counties served, Fletcher said.

“We have this here as a visual representation, to let them [the children] know they’re not the only ones,” Fletcher said.

It also serves as a reminder to the employees, she said, who get busy and stressed.

“You come out here and look at this and realize there’s a lot worse going on in the world than you’ve had a busy day,” Fletcher said. “It reminds us that we’d like to work ourselves out of a job.”

For more information, contact Fletcher at (501) 328-3347 or visit www.hopeandjustice.org.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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