The quality of therapeutic and emotional support for abused children in Sedgwick County is improving dramatically with the opening of the new $7 million Child Advocacy Center just south of downtown Wichita.
The center held its official opening ceremony on Tuesday, symbolically leaving behind its former undersized and unappealing offices in the basement of the Finney State Office Building.
The center moved into the new digs on June 16 and 17 and began handling cases the next day.
“I can speak to the unrelenting flood of preventable abuse that spills into further abuse, illness and dysfunctional behavior, creating problems for our community,” said Katherine Melhorn, a child-abuse pediatrician with the University of Kansas Medical Center and a center board member.
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“Through many years of challenging each other to continually improve our services to abused and neglected children, we arrived at the multiagency, multidisciplinary team response that we call the Child Advocacy Center,” Melhorn said. “In taking down our professional fences, we went on the offense against the same opponent. We’re now together in one building to provide the most effective and timely intervention and therapy.”
The new center was designed to be as child-friendly as possible, with a “whacky shack” playhouse in the lobby, toys spread through the interview and waiting rooms and a large doll house that is so detailed that the toilet seats go up and down. There’s even a toy closet, like a small toy store, where children can pick out a donated item to take home for comfort.
It’s also a much better environment for people who work with abused children.
“This place has been a huge blessing to all of us,” said Diana Schunn, center executive director. “It’s already improved the morale of the staff when working with such difficult topic material. We have wonderful opportunities here that we didn’t have in our old offices.”
The Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County incorporated as a nonprofit group in 2008 to try to bring together multiple service providers under the same roof, at the same time creating an atmosphere that would be more comfortable for abused and traumatized children than a traditional courthouse or police-station setting.
District Attorney Marc Bennett said that when the idea first came up for a multi-agency center for child victims, his first thought was “this is kind of a touchy-feely deal” and the county was already doing fine. A visit to a center in Ohio changed his mind.
“We went up there and saw what a CAC was,” said Bennett, who was then head of the DA’s sex-crime unit. He said it helped him realize that caring for the victims was as important as punishing their abusers. He came away thinking “we need this, we need this in Wichita.”
Built in the extensively renovated former Lincoln Elementary School, the new center will be able to serve about 2,000 children a year with social, therapeutic and advocacy services.
That’s slightly less than half of the 4,500 abused children who come in contact annually with the Exploited and Missing Child Unit, a joint venture of the Wichita Police Department, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office and the state Department for Children and Families, Schunn said.
In addition to the Child Advocacy Center’s own staff and the EMCU, also based in the new center will be the police and sheriff’s Internet Crimes Against Children Unit and representatives of the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office; the Department of Homeland Security; the Wesley, Via Christi and University of Kansas hospital systems; and ICT S.O.S., which works with victims of human trafficking.
Among the major donors to the new center are the Duane and Velma Wallace Family Foundation, $1.2 million; Sedgwick County, $1 million; Ken and Jan Shannon, $625,000; Barry and Paula Downing, $550,000; the J.E. and L.E. Mabee Foundation, $500,000; and the Junior League of Wichita, $300,000.