Rebecca Bush has interviewed and interacted with hundreds of children during her time as the Saline County chief deputy prosecutor. None of those children has asked to come back.
That is until a few weeks ago, when the department unveiled its new child-friendly space at the downtown Benton office. The area is filled with books, games, a mounted television and colorful decor adorning the walls. The first interview subject was a 9-year-old girl.
“It was very different [from previous interviews],” said Bush, who has worked in the prosecutor’s office for more than 15 years. “Her whole attitude was different. It wasn’t like she was coming to sit across the desk from a lawyer, which would usually be kind of scary for a kid. She came in and was at ease. It was a very good and unusual experience.”
Previously, investigators interviewed children, many of whom are sexual-assault victims, in one of the attorney’s offices or a conference room. The conference room has a painting of inmates waiting to be seen in court, and while it has artistic merit, the painting could be menacing for a young child. For those whose parents were testifying or being interviewed, the children were stationed in the office’s break room with children’s programming tuned to the television and given coloring pages.
“The courthouse and our office is an otherwise imposing place for a kid,” said Ken Casady, Saline County prosecuting attorney.
Casady and his staff discussed different options for a year, but funding was a problem. In October, longtime office manager/victim advocate Natalie Terry discovered that a Victims of Crime Act grant had extra money for the office to do a one-time project. Casady decided to put the money toward turning the law-library space into a child-friendly space.
“I actually got the idea from another county that set up a room,” Terry said. “We wanted our room to be for all age groups and not just little kids, so that’s how we came up with the color scheme we did. We are really, really excited.”
The grant was secured in October 2016, and renovation began in February with all of the staff pitching in. Bush painted the walls that include a tree with mystical blue apples instead of the traditional red, and Terry decorated various signs.
“This was a real group effort,” Casady said. “The grant funded all of the raw materials, but we took care of all of the labor. I’ve known [the staff] is pretty handy with that stuff, so I knew we could handle it. They did a good job.”
The room resembles a classroom or a day care center. The space has colorful murals, including the tree with the blue apples. There are wall hangings that include the court rules, which are important in the questioning process. Instead of being listed on a sheet of paper, there is a multicolored, matted painting on the wall with a caterpillar and a flower below.
There are a variety of stuffed animals and a large library of children’s books. One door has a full-length magnetic chalkboard, and another door on the wall has a dry-erase marker board.
“It took us longer than what we wanted it to because of figuring out the artwork and the colors,” Terry said. “The hardest part was deciding on what we wanted the room to look like. We kind of wanted it whimsical, which is why we have blue apples on the trees instead of red. That was kind of our goal — to make it fun for the kids and all ages to see.
“When we were done, one of our co-workers’ daughters came in and lay right down on the carpet and read a book.”
On the wall in the hallway are handprints of the victims who have been interviewed. Some are identified by first name, and others by age and sex. Out of place on the wall are large man-size handprints from a 43-year-old who was sexually abused. He testified about an ongoing sexual-abuse case.
When that first 9-year-old girl was finished being interviewed in the new child-friendly room and her handprint was added to the wall, she had one request. She wanted to come back.
“We put her handprint on the wall, and I was taking her to wash the paint off, and she asked me if she could come back,” Bush said. “That was emotional for me and let me know she was comfortable here. That’s our goal.”