Caitlyn Johnson says she’s forgotten about her stepfather setting her on fire. Or at least she’s tried.
So at 15 she retains only hazy memories of getting doused with fluid, then the flames.
But she does remember talking with investigators. And the counselors. And the advocates. And many more.
“I had to tell my story again and again,” she said.
Many child advocates in Sedgwick County wince when they talk about what Caitlyn endured. And not only because a man tried to burn her to death.
In Sedgwick County, some of the mechanics of investigations of child abuse trouble the very people who perform them.
The Child Advocacy Center is announcing a fundraising effort Thursday to centralize services and reduce the burden the social system imposes on Caitlyn and nearly 2,000 other abused children in Sedgwick County every year.
“It’s a maze we put children and families through, right after the worst moment of their lives,” said Marc Bennett, the Sedgwick County district attorney. He has advocated for a centralized Child Advocacy Center for years. “I’m sorry it’s so impactful on these children.”
The center has bought the former Lincoln Elementary school building at 1211 S. Emporia, near Lincoln and Emporia, and hopes to raise $4.5 million to renovate it, said Diana Schunn, the director. It already has $2.7 million in donations or pledges, she said. The center wants to open for business by August of next year.
It will get at least one donation Thursday: ICT S.O.S., a volunteer group run by Jennifer White, will be presenting a check for $27,000, money raised from the 940 runners taking part in the 2013 Race for Freedom 5K on Sept. 7, White said.
The 42,000 square feet in the old school building will allow the center for the first time to locate about 55 people in one place, streamlining or eliminating many investigation redundancies that plague children during abuse investigations, Schunn said.
The center staff intervenes immediately in abuse cases, coordinating with police, prosecutors, counselors and medical personnel to address not only the investigations but the child’s and the family’s well-being.
The problem, as Bennett said, is that traumatized children identified as possible abuse victims face a wide array of people after they are rescued from abuse. Most of these people demanding things from these children are not centrally located now, and all want the children to tell the same story to a succession of different people: police, prosecutors, multiple varieties of social workers, victim advocates, doctors, nurses, counselors and more.
“I had to talk to the district attorney,” Caitlyn said. “Then I had to tell the story, and tell the things that were done, again, to the detectives. And the social workers. And others.”
“I was upset and I was scared,” she said. “After a while I just … well, I just stopped thinking. And I just did what they told me to do.”
It went on for weeks. Her stepfather, Chris Newberry, set her on fire to cover up other crimes. Newberry, who pleaded guilty to attempted murder, is still in prison.
The large official response to child abuse is well intentioned and necessary, but doesn’t happen to people in most other types of crimes, Bennett said. It can deepen the suffering of children like Caitlyn who’ve just been taken into protective custody, and who may have lived with terror and abuse for years already. Families, “many of them without means,” Bennet said, are made to show up repeatedly downtown, where parking can be hard to find, and then travel around town to keep appointments.
The center and its many partners have cooperated in the current scattered form since 2008, Schunn said. She and her staff of seven work in a cramped space in the state office building downtown, in the same building with many of the social workers and the detectives from the Exploited and Missing Child Unit.
Putting them together with medical and counseling and other personnel at the old school building will cut down on redundant interviews and make it easier for families to get help, Schunn said.
There is much at stake here, Schunn said. Last year, she said, the center served 1,839 children, 622 of them under age six and another 610 ages seven to 12. Most of the victims the center served – 1,242 – were victims of sexual abuse. Another 372 were victims of physical abuse, and 191 were victims of neglect or drug endangerment, Schunn said.