Every 10 seconds, a report of child abuse is made in the United States. And for the last 20 years, the Children’s Advocacy Center of Paris has worked to fight on behalf of the victims here in Lamar County.

The center was founded in 1999 by the Lamar Leadership Class, in conjunction with local law enforcement officials, executive director Rebecca Peevy said. Peevy describes the founding of the center as a local, grassroots effort.

“David Hess, who worked child abuse cases for the Paris Police Department, was a member of the leadership class, and he’d heard about children’s advocacy centers in other places and wanted to introduce one here,” Peevy said. “They took it and just ran with it. They didn’t form the first board of directors, but they helped get it started, and many of them were on the first board of directors anyway.”

Today, the center provides several services for children who have been victims of abuse, including medical and therapeutic treatment, forensic interviews, advocacy throughout the legal process and education.

Those services haven’t always been provided, though. In the center’s earliest days, Peevy said, the Children’s Advocacy Center primarily focused on the forensic interviews, where children who had been victims of abuse talk with a caseworker with the center, while law enforcement listen in from a different room.

“In the interviews, we have the child sit down with a trained person, and them tell their story,” Peevy said. “We think it’s important that the law enforcement officers aren’t in the room listening, because it can be hard for children to open up about things like this, and the more people in the room, the harder it might be for them. It helps put them at ease.”

“They’re absolutely essential to helping us solve these serious cases,” Paris Police Chief Bob Hundley said. “We wouldn’t be able to do our job without the Children’s Advocacy Center.”

Roughly five years into the center’s existence, the medical services component was added, and several nurses were brought on board to provide sexual assault exams.

To this end, Peevy said the center works closely with Paris Regional Medical Center, Quality Care ER, and other local health care providers.

“What they do is what the public knows as rape kits,” Peevy said. “So they’re looking for DNA, checking for physical findings, though of course many times there are no physical findings. So a lot of what the nurse does is make sure the child is OK, reassure the child that they’re not broken, that people won’t be able to tell and things like that.”

Much more recently, in 2013, the Children’s Advocacy Center hired its first therapist, and that became a regular service it provided shortly thereafter.

“We’re now able to offer onsite trauma and grief counselling,” Peevy said.

The center also has expanded in size over the years, Peevy added. Originally serving solely Lamar County, the Children’s Advocacy Center eventually expanded to cover Red River County.

She said it is unlikely the center will expand to cover any other counties, though, since the other bordering counties already have services similar to what the Children’s Advocacy Center provides.

The length that children stay with the Children’s Advocacy Center varies on a case-by-case basis, Peevy said. For some, they come for the initial interview and medical test, and then don’t come back. Others utilize the center’s therapy for as long as six months to a year.

The Children’s Advocacy Center’s services are much needed in Lamar and Red River County, and Peevy said the number of children helped has been steadily climbing in recent years. In 2018, the center helped 253 children, and the year before that it helped roughly 220, she said.

“I don’t think more children are being abused; I think more kids are coming forward, and that’s a good thing,” she said.

In April, the Children’s Advocacy Center celebrated 20 years of service with the annual pinwheel planting, where pinwheels are placed representing each of the children who was a victim of abuse the prior year.

“We’re trying to help kids heal,” Peevy said. “We don’t want this to be something that defines them, but something they can overcome.”

Tommy Culkin is a staff writer for The Paris News. He can be reached at 903-785-6972 or at tommy.culkin@theparisnews.com.

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