Western PA CARES for Kids celebrates its new space to help young crime victims

BROOKVILLE — A new building, a new start. And a time to dream big.
Jefferson County’s own child advocacy center (CAC), Western PA CARES for Kids, has a good reason to celebrate.

Sunday, the center opened the doors to its new facility and welcomed about 100 people to take part in the ceremony.

“It’s a dream come true,” Jefferson County District Attorney and Western PA CARES for Kids Board President Jeff Burkett said. “We’ve been dreaming about this basically since 2004. The new facility really gives us the ability to dream big.”

The new building, located along Route 322 in Brookville, is a place CARES for Kids can finally call its own, and is one of the goals Burkett hoped to fulfill since the beginning of the program.

In 2004, Burkett first envisioned the possibility of a county child advocacy center, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the first part of his vision came true.

Burkett’s office applied for and was awarded a one-year start-up grant to develop a center. Since that time, the CAC has applied for and received 501(c)(3) non-profit status, and is now a community-based agency.

But when CARES first began operating in 2008, the office was located in the basement of the Behavioral Health Building
in Brookville.

“We were very thankful for it (the space), but all along, we knew that there would be a day when we needed to move out of there,” Burkett said.
And that day came Sunday, but not without the hard work and due diligence of a group of dedicated individuals.

Executive Director and Forensic Interviewer for CARES, Pat Berger, was up against an almost next-to-impossible task.

After doing some research, Berger learned about a CAC in Gettysburg that had been in operation for only one year longer than Jefferson County’s CAC, but already had its own facility, and enough money to pay for the salaries of eight people for two years.

Berger was amazed, and further learned that the money for Gettysburg’s CAC was available through Mental Health/Mental Retardation.
So she made a call.

May 30, Berger was told she had $175,000 at her disposal to purchase a location and renovate it.

But there was a major stipulation.

“I was told I needed to find a place, close on it, and get three contractor bids and engineer drawings for handicap accessibility — in 30 days,” Berger said. “From what I’m hearing, it’s next to impossible to do all of that.”

But she did. And with only three days to spare.

June 28, she closed on the house, just a few days before the money would have been sent back to the state.

“We’ve wanted for a long time to be able to be a child-focused, child-friendly center,” she said. “And where we started before, was helpful because it was free to stay there, but it wasn’t really child-friendly.”
The money from Mental Health/Mental Retardation has made Berger’s dream a reality.

According to Burkett, a visitor to the CAC even described the home as a “trip to Grandma’s house.”

Complete with a comfy living room and play area, the CAC now has a bathroom, a kitchen, a conference room, an office and a sound-proof interview room.

Board members, family members of board members and the contractor, Chuck Nelson, were able to bring everything together in less than four months.
“It’s a real story about the power of people working together,” Burkett said.

Berger’s past position working for the district attorney gave her direct insight into the trauma that child victims go through, and the importance of making interviews and trial appearances as comfortable as possible.

“Part of my job was accompanying victims to court, holding little kids’ hands while they testify, and seeing what all they go through,” she said.
At Western PA CARES for Kids, children who may have experienced either physical or sexual abuse, or children who were witnesses to a violent crime, are interviewed once by a trained forensic interviewer with nationally-accredited training, while the investigative team watches the interview on a monitor.

This eliminates the need for each member of the investigative team to perform a separate interview, which reduces the trauma and enhances the physical, emotional and psychological safety of the child.

From May 2008 to August 2011, CARES for Kids has served 181 children.
Of those 181 children, 157 were victims of sexual abuse; 18 were victims of physical abuse; and six children were witnesses to violence.

“The way the system worked back in 2004 was a whole lot worse,” Burkett said. “The kids would have to talk about abuse over and over and over. Now, one interview is done, and it’s done with excellence, too. Pat Berger is a nationally-accredited interviewer.”

While the interview is taking place, police, Children & Youth Services, the county’s detective, the DA or the ADA and mental health personnel watch the interview in a different room on a TV screen.

“Then we all put our heads together to find the best way to investigate the allegations,” Burkett said. “It has completely revolutionized the way we investigate child abuse in this county.”

The new center helps to further this goal as well.

“Having a nice facility makes the children feel more at ease,” he said. “We want to minimize the trauma and ease the burden a little bit for them — the facility does that.”

Although providing a child-friendly center is a step in the right director for CARES, Burkett and Berger still have a long list of goals.
Berger would like to transform the facility’s garage into two separate areas: One for medical assessment and the other for trauma-focused, cognitive behavioral play therapy.

Furthermore, she would also like to renovate the basement and provide an area where non-offending parents could receive “non-offender, parent education” classes, where they can learn about the criminal justice program and what their kids are going through.

But there’s an even bigger goal they want to accomplish.

“Our biggest hope is that we would really like to have other counties start to use our facility,” he said. “Children get abused everywhere — child abuse does not know county lines. We are hoping to expand and become a regional child advocacy center. This was definitely a first step.”

For more information about Western PA CARES for Kids, or to learn how you can help, contact Berger at 814-849-1904, or visit the Web site: www.carescac.org.

The following is a Western PA CARES for Kids wish list as it settles into its new space along Route 322, Brookville:

Community outreach
Volunteers to help with fund-raising and public awareness events.Supplies
Copier paper; letter size envelopes; file folders; stamps; gift cards to Staples for office supplies; trash bags; paper towels; toilet paper; antibacterial hand soaps; vacuum cleaner; 65 lb. white card stock paper; small tool kit; toaster; trash cans; rock salt for porch and ramp; snow shovel; push broom; easel pads; 9x12 envelopes; security system; Shop Vac; solar lights for ramp walkway; TV and DVD players; cartoon DVDs; microwave; paper napkins; small Dixie cups; tri-fold brochure paper; 60-watt light bulbs; and coasters.

Children’s Area
Educational toys; teenage books; and magazine subscriptions (children, teens and parents).Snack items
Box juices; non-perishable snack items (animal crackers/goldfish crackers); small paper plates or bowls; coffee; non-dairy creamer; sugar and sugar substitutes; child-size drinking cups; bottled water; plastic silverware; and peanut butter.

• Monetary donations are also accepted.