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story.lead_photo.caption Lindsey Carter, executive director of the new Child Advocacy Center of Independence County, holds a sign original to the house, built in 1922, at 510 E. Boswell St. in Batesville. The advocacy center is a first for the community, and an open house is scheduled for 11 a.m. Nov. 13. “We bought a house in downtown Batesville for a reason; it’s a safe, homey environment,” Carter said. The home is on the National Register of Historic Places. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

Lindsey Carter finally got her wish — for her hometown to have a child-advocacy center.

Carter is executive director of the new Child Advocacy Center of Independence County in Batesville.

“It’s funny how it worked out,” Carter said.

She was working as a forensic interviewer at an advocacy center in Bentonville when she read in a newspaper article that Mark and Arlene Martin, who have a foundation in Batesville, had the dream to open a child-advocacy center.

That was Carter’s dream, too.

“I said, ‘Oooh, I want to do that,’” Carter said. She contacted the Martins.

She found out that a board had already been created.

Dianne Lamberth, the board chairwoman, said discussions started four years ago; the project kicked off two years ago in earnest.

“I visited with the first lady (Susan Hutchinson), and I asked what her passion was, and she told me the CAC — and this was four years ago. It just pulled at my heart,” Lamberth said.

Lamberth asked Arlene Martin to get involved in the mission, and they enlisted two more women, Janis Walmsley and Beatrice Moore, to be on the board. Three men have been added: Jason Taylor, Patrick Mulick and Dr. Chris Steele.

Carter was hired in April.

She wrote a start-up grant while she still lived in Bentonville and made trips back and forth from Northwest Arkansas to Batesville to work with a real estate agent to find a suitable location for the center.

They found the house at 510 E. Boswell St.

“It’s on the historical registry; it’s a beautiful home,” Carter said.

Renovations are underway to transform the former family residence into a homey advocacy center to conduct interviews and exams for child-abuse cases, which primarily will be sexual assault. The Batesville center will cover cases in five counties: Independence, Izard, Stone, Sharp and Fulton.

“This is one of the only areas in the state that is very poorly covered,” Carter said. “Independence County kiddos have had to go to the White County center in Searcy; they have a wonderful center there. Anything north of Independence County, or even northern Independence County, they just don’t get those services at all. They get interviewed at the police station,” she said.

Carter predicted that the center will serve 250 to 300 kids per year, based on previous hotline-report numbers and how many children Searcy’s center saw from Independence County.

“I do want to highlight that the advocate, after the exam, goes in there and then works with that family as long as they need it.” Carter said. “We follow the family through the process in court.

“A lot of times, the abuser is not Mom or Dad; it could be someone out of the home. A lot of times, those families really need services. … We follow that case until prosecution is closed and offer mental-health services.”

Lamberth said her hope is “that we service every child who needs us, and we become a really soft place to fall for them. They’ve already been through so much that we want to take care of these children.”

The facility will be ready to accept children soon. An open house is scheduled for 11 a.m. Nov. 13.

Renovations to the Boswell Street house include restoring its original hardwood floors.

“That’s my favorite thing,” Lamberth said. “It’s so gorgeous.”

Carter said the bathrooms and kitchen were “completely renovated.” The kitchen received new countertops, and the cabinets were painted. The bathrooms received new vanities and toilets. The inside of the house was repainted, including miles of trim.

“We had to build a forensic-interview room,” she said, because the space needed to be private, and the home is large and has lots of windows.

Layers and layers of paint are being stripped from the exterior of the wood-and-rock home, Carter said, and it will be repainted with a navy color.

“We’re going to paint it again and make it pretty because it looks pretty rough now,” she said.

Lamberth said the house is in the historic district, and the zoning did not change. However, the organization was approved by the city for a conditional-use permit. She said neighbors have welcomed the center with open arms.

People in the community donated their time and products for the house, Carter said. The Child Advocacy Center of Independence County is a nonprofit organization funded solely through grants and community support.

Two years ago, Lamberth set up the Howard and Mary House Charitable Foundation in her parents’ memory. Proceeds from a golf tournament sponsored by the foundation will go to the new advocacy center. Arlene and Mark Martin also established a foundation after that and also adopted the advocacy center as its charity.

The center’s mission will be clear.

“If any report comes in of child abuse, which normally comes through the Arkansas Child Abuse hotline but can also come through law enforcement, they will call us, and we will have someone bring the child to the center,” Carter said. “The investigators will also come to the center. We will have a child advocate greet them, explain the process and do any crisis … work with the family … and do a fact-finding interview, which is video- and audio-recorded.”

She said investigators will be in the next room watching the interview on closed-circuit television.

“A sexual-assault nurse examiner will do a sexual-assault exam and evidence collection,” Carter said.

“It’s going to be — it’s not quite there yet — a very child-friendly, warm room. It does have an exam bed, but it’s not like a hospital room. We’re having a local artist paint a mural on the ceiling. I have this really cool light fixture that looks like a big silver ball of yarn,” she said.

“A lot of times, an exam is a relief for a child; the interview is kind of the hard part. They sit there and, maybe for the first time ever in their life, explain what’s going on in their life, who assaulted them or what happened,” Carter said.

“The nurses are good,” she said, and reassure the children, ‘You’re healthy; you look like every other child. No one can tell this has happened to you.’ We encourage exams, even if there isn’t evidence collection, to let them know their body is healthy.”

Mental health is an important part of the treatment process, too. Carter said the nonprofit organization plans to renovate another building on the property, a type of carriage house behind the main residence, to be used for mental-health services. For now, the advocacy center has an agreement with a trauma therapist in town for services.

“Hopefully, by spring, we’ll have a full-time mental-health therapist on location,” she said.

Carter said that while the renovations are being done on the Boswell Street house, she is writing grants, working on finances and trying to get the word out in the community about the center.

“I’m really trying to get out there and do some education,” Carter said.

“I’m training the local schools, hospitals, law enforcement — letting everyone know how this is going to work, training about mandated reporting, first response to child abuse and that we’ll be seeing the kids. They haven’t had a lot of training here. I’ve already been to three schools, law enforcement meetings,” she said.

“Usually, hotline numbers start to go up when we start doing community training,” Carter said. “Anybody can call the hotlines, and we encourage anyone to call the hotlines.

“A lot of time we have people call the center and say, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ We encourage anybody who has questions or concerns to call the center if they don’t know what to do.”

The Child Advocacy Center of Independence County can be reached at (870) 569-8099. The mailing address is P.O. Box 2661, Batesville, AR 72503. The National Child Abuse Hotline number is (800) 422-4453.

“Child-advocacy centers have been around long enough now in the state that research shows how much they help children heal from abuse and how they can help them lead a life free of the effects of abuse later,” Carter said.

“We help them with counseling, and they graduate from counseling, and they start looking like different children,” she said.

Carter recalled a little girl who wouldn’t disclose her abuse.

“She was terrified,” Carter said. “She was underweight and just looked sad and scared all the time, and we knew something was going on with her.”

Both of the girls’ parents were found to have abused her, and she was placed in foster care.

“She continued coming to counseling, and one day, I had to take a second look,” Carter said. “She was smiling, had a bow in her hair, had gained weight. She loved coming back to counseling. She looked like a different kid. We see that a lot. They really blossom into what a kid should be.

“It’s all about how we respond. We can’t stop child abuse from happening, but we can respond correctly. And we can give children hope for the future.”

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

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