County will help upgrade center, if others do

Sedgwick County commissioners agreed Wednesday to give the region's Child Advocacy Center more than $300,000 to expand services for abused children — but only if Wichita and the state government contribute as well.

Commissioner Gwen Welshimer, who made the motion to extend the services, said she supports the center's mission of bringing together law enforcement, social services and health care for abused children. But she said other governments have a responsibility to contribute.

Welshimer's motion would allow the county to spend $334,000 on the center, contingent on Wichita providing another $334,000 and the state $167,000.

"The safety and welfare of children should be a priority not only for Sedgwick County but for the state and city of Wichita as well," Welshimer said. "The state has a greater priority for huge and excessive tax exemptions, and the city of Wichita has a greater priority for downtown redevelopment and building owners in that area."

"And considering their priorities, I'm not so sure that we should pick up their obligation on advocacy for children."

Diana Schunn, executive director of the center, said she had tried and is "not overly optimistic" about getting additional money from the city and state.

"Standing here today, I don't feel we're any better or worse off than we were six hours ago," she said just after the meeting.

She added that the state has already allocated $112,000 to the center for this year and is unlikely to do more while the Legislature faces hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts.

Approving the funds

County staff had proposed giving the center $835,000 this year to expand its services and move out of cramped quarters in the basement of the Finney State Office Building downtown.

Of that, $500,000 would have come from grant reserves at Comcare, the county's mental health agency, and been used for operating expenses.

The remaining $335,000 would have come from county general fund reserves and been used to move the center and equip a building in the Twin Lakes area near 21st and Amidon.

Welshimer's counterproposal was approved 4-1 with Commissioner Tim Norton dissenting.

Both he and Commissioner Dave Unruh wanted to fund the full amount, but Unruh cast a reluctant "yes" vote, saying that he wanted to keep the process going.

Norton said the county should challenge other levels of government and private foundations to step up, but he said he also felt he was elected to help solve the problems the center is addressing.

"Yes, there's a financial risk," he said. "But if I'm going to take a risk, I don't mind risking it for the kids of our community."

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said he had concerns about providing the bulk of the funding for the center — which is run by a public-private board — unless the commission had more control of the operation.

Appointees from Comcare, the sheriff's office and the district attorney's office are the three county members on the 13-member board.

The center serves about 2,500 children a year. About half are victims of physical and sexual abuse and Internet crime. The other half are runaways who also face potential exploitation.

Improving the facility

Working through the center are about 35 police officers, deputies, prosecutors, counselors, social workers and medical personnel.

The idea is to allow their agencies to interact smoothly so abused children and their families don't have to go to offices spread across town for services.

The county has been working with the center since budget deliberations in August, when commissioners rejected a request from the center for $120,000 a year for five years.

County Chief Financial Officer Chris Chronis — whose department was asked to review the center's needs — told the commission the review found that the center will need a budget of about $600,000 a year to operate as effectively as it should.

The organization now operates on an annual budget of less than $250,000, Chronis said.

It gets its current space rent-free from the state, but the offices are "grossly inadequate," Chronis said.

Work areas are badly overcrowded and child victims have to share a common waiting room with perpetrators of abuse from other cases, he said.

There are no medical exam rooms and inadequate facilities to conduct and observe victim interviews, he said.

"It's not like you see on 'Law and Order,' " Chronis said.

Moving to Twin Lakes would add about $160,000 a year in rent, Chronis projected.

His plan included separate entrances and waiting areas for victims and perpetrators; an increase in work stations from 32 to 46; increasing the number of interview rooms from two to five; and adding two medical examination rooms.

Chronis also recommended increasing the center's administrative staff from two to six full- and part-time employees to handle the workload.