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Taking the Mask Off Child Abuse
By Audrey Hanes, Photography by Kayla Broadway

Last year, the Northeast Arkansas Children’s Advocacy Center provided a safe haven for 324 children who had been physically, emotionally or sexually abused. To fund that much-needed facility and to be better equipped to serve seven counties in Northeast Arkansas free of charge, the nonprofit organization is holding its inaugural Masquerade Ball next month.

The Northeast Arkansas Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) was founded in Jonesboro in 2008 by Sue McDaniel, John Hardin, LeaAnn Vanaman Stidham and the Arkansas State Police Crimes Against Children Division and serves children in Clay, Craighead, Greene, Lawrence, Mississippi, Poinsett and Randolph Counties. The CAC brings together all of the necessary professionals to help children who have suffered abuse, allowing the victims and their families to be interviewed, examined and comforted under one roof. That unique arrangement prevents children who are already suffering from confusion, fear and pain to be re-traumatized by being shuffled from place to place in unfriendly environments to tell their story repeatedly.

“The entire concept of the Children’s Advocacy Centers started in Huntsville, Ala. well over 35 years ago, when a U.S. attorney named Bud Kramer noticed that child victims – by the time they got to trial – had talked to multiple people from the time (of) the disclosure of abuse to the time they got to court,” said NEA CAC Executive Director Amanda Frankenberger. “Then, legislation was passed that allowed multi-disciplinary teams … to work together to decrease the amount of times a child has to be interviewed, (where) all investigative partners can gather whatever information they need for their case.”

In 2018, the CAC saw 200 children, a number that grew to 324 in 2019. Frankenberger, who came to the NEA center in June 2018, says that the local branch of the organization has already served 60 children in the first seven weeks of 2020, in large part due to more people finding out about the CAC and utilizing its services.

“The Children’s Advocacy Center of Northeast Arkansas is a childhood forensic interviewing site for children that are victims of very violent crime such as sexual abuse, severe physical abuse or (who) witness homicide or drug invasions in their home,” said Frankenberger. “We offer numerous services at no cost to the family under one roof; … advocacy, forensic interview, medical exam if needed (and) on-site trauma-focused mental health therapy.”

When children come to the CAC, they speak one-on-one with an on-site professional in a welcoming playroom, which helps children slowly be able to talk about the suspected abuse in a less stressful environment. This is followed by the video monitored interview; for the benefit of the child, all interviews are video-taped and observed by investigative professionals to reduce the times a child has to recount their experience. If an on-site medical exam is required, a specially trained pediatric sexual assault nurse examiner will collect evidence and ensure that the child is medically safe.

The CAC offers a multidisciplinary team approach, which includes medical professionals, law enforcement officers, mental health professionals, prosecutors, child protective services representatives, victim advocacy representatives and other professionals, who make decisions together about how to help the child based on the interview.

Frankenberger has worked tirelessly since beginning with the center to educate communities in NEA about what the CAC is and what it does so that more victims are aware of the nonprofit organization and are able to utilize its services if the need arises. The licensed social worker has a bachelor’s degree from Arkansas State University in social work and a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, as well as previous work experience at CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) with grant writing, grant reporting and nonprofit operations.

“I’ve been in the helping profession for the past 14 years, and I was always taught growing up you help those that cannot help themselves,” said Frankenberger. “But the past year and a half I’ve been at the Children’s Advocacy Center is more than helping. It’s about being able to work together as a healthy functioning team to bring hope and healing to these victims and these families. It truly takes a village of compassionate, caring individuals. Everyone I have at the Child Advocacy Center has a God-given talent and such a strength that makes us unique and thriving.  

“… These kids deserve the best services, and my team (members) at the CAC are top-notch, compassionate and caring individuals. We want to raise awareness of the CAC and take the mask off child abuse. … Part of nonprofit survival is fundraising. It costs us $1,250 to provide comprehensive services to one child/family that we serve. We need to grow and expand our services throughout Northeast Arkansas.”

To raise that awareness, along with the money needed to fund the organization and its services, the executive director and the center’s board decided to hold an inaugural Masquerade Ball. The 2020 Roaring Twenties-themed Masquerade Ball will be held on April 4 at the Embassy Suites Red Wolf Convention Center. Chairing the ball are Laura Bean and Jamie St. Pierre, both of whom are board members and are passionate about funding the work of the CAC and educating the community about what child abuse looks like and how to report it.

“It’s unfortunate that the need exists, but it does exist,” said St. Pierre, an account executive with Staffmark. “How the abuse is reported … can have a big impact on whether or not the alleged offender serves time. It affects everyone, and everyone in the community needs to be involved. The center is continually working with the community to build partnerships. Referrals are key.

“The center and its staff are continuing to grow. One of the things we have talked about as a board is how to better serve those outlying counties; what can we do in those communities to connect or have satellite offices? We are working to better our center, and we have to have more funds to make a lot of that happen.”

“We want to take out any obstacle that could prevent a family from bringing their child to the center, whether it’s a family without transportation, a need for a gas card to drive to the center or whatever that might be,” added Bean, the vice president of marketing and business development with First Security Bank. “The end goal is the detection and prevention, as well as to reduce their trauma any way we can.”

The Masquerade Ball co-chairs say the CAC would also like to be able to move into a larger, more comfortable space as the center continues to serve more children.

“Besides funding, more and more people are finding out about the center and what it does and how they can get involved,” said St. Pierre of the inaugural ball. “Even us asking for sponsorship has helped get the word out and resulted in us getting more grants.

“We just want to make sure we get enough people to this event. Our sponsors have been great, everything is paid for and we have great silent auction items, but we need people to buy tickets and show up. We hope the community will feel led to come. It’s not just a fun event, although it will be fun with music and dancing and drinks and music; we want them to know their ticket purchase will go a long way to making a difference at the center.”

The fundraiser will feature games with Roaring Twenties-themed prizes such as cigars and bourbon, and entertainment will include a DJ and a performance from members of the Arkansas State University Jazz Band.

“I truly admire every kid and their bravery (to) walk through our doors,” said Frankenberger. “Disclosure of abuse to a complete stranger is no easy task. My favorite line from a child was, ‘I didn’t know I was coming to the toy store.’ In my mind, this child has just disclosed the most horrific thing that has probably ever happened to him, and all he can think about is how excited he is that he’s at the toy store. If my talents of program growth and development and casting a big vision for the CAC in the next five years will make every child feel like they’re coming to the toy store, then that makes my job worth it.”

For more information about the Northeast Arkansas Children’s Advocacy Center, located at 1302 Stone Street, call (870) 275-7902, visit neacac.net or find NEA Children’s Advocacy Center on Facebook. To purchase tickets to the ball, contact Amanda Frankenberger at rsvp@neacac.net. Tickets can also be purchased at neacac.net under the Masquerade Ball tab.