Last year, 150 children who had been physically and/or sexually abused went through the doors of the Baton Rouge Children’s Advocacy Center (BRCAC), which serves East and West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes. The center is mandated by the state Legislature to bring together the investigative, judicial, social services and mental health agencies that respond to reports of child abuse so that the child has to tell his story only once.
To make sure BRCAC meets its $200,000 annual budget, it is holding its signature fundraiser Monday. The fifth annual “Celebrity Waiters Event — An All-Star Tailgate” at Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar Burbank location gets under way at 7 p.m. In addition to raising much needed funds, the evening will be a celebration of sorts. In February, BRCAC moved into its new headquarters.
Three years ago, the center was desperately looking for larger quarters. There were some parameters: it had to be downtown near law enforcement offices and the courthouse, and it needed to be a homelike setting. That setting plays a vital role in the forensic interview process. It’s a familiar setting, closely resembling a home or day-care center which is much less threatening than a police department.
“When you hear someone’s been arrested for child abuse, they (the children) have come through here,” said Executive Director Sharon Pol, “That’s a good thing; they should all come through here. If they don’t, they don’t get the needed therapy services. These children need to know it’s not their fault.”
The interview is done by a forensic interviewer, ideally in a room solely dedicated to that purpose. As the child officially relates the story of physical and/or sexual abuse for the first and only time, authorities listen and watch via a one-way mirror from another room. The interview is also taped, which means the child may not have to testify in open court. In BRCAC’s old headquarters, that interview took place in what was the play therapy room. Officials observed from the cramped conference room.
Family members waited in what doubled as an office for the support services coordinator.
Last year, that search for new quarters ended when a two-story Victorian-style house on East Boulevard was purchased, thanks to a donation from the Irene W. & C.B. Pennington Foundation. Stimulus money from the city parish helped renovate the facility.
The new facility features a dedicated play therapy room, a dedicated forensic interview room and a dedicated room for officials to watch and listen to that process. There are also offices, a board room and a kitchen, which the kids are free to rummage around, as they might at home, for snacks and something to drink.
Pol, her staff and the board are most proud of the play therapy room, which got a makeover courtesy of Raising Cane’s and was unveiled at an open house June 28. The transformation was done by Raising Cane’s employees Kelli Eason, Ben Halbert, Paine Gowen and Julie Perrault.
The Raising Cane’s Play Therapy Room will also be the site of a new aspect of the therapy services provided by CAC — pet therapy. Gwen Graves, wife of Raising Cane’s founder/owner Todd Graves, will accompany the company’s 12-year-old mascot, Cane, a trained therapy dog, to visit with the children and counselors and get the program jump started.
“I hope that any child that comes in this room finds comfort in its fun, playful spirit and begins to heal,” said Todd Graves, who got involved with the center via his chief financial officer, Robert Daigrepont, past chairman of BRCAC’s board of directors. “Robert has been involved with the organization for years and he opened my eyes to the need that the BRCAC is filling in our community. All too often children are victims of violence and abuse.”
“Our therapy program is … what we says is, we give trauma-focused, cognitive behavioral therapy,” explained Pol. “It’s a short-term thing to help these children know what they’re supposed to do, who to tell … help them understand their behavior, what has happened and that they are not responsible. Research shows that, if the children keep it in, it will manifest in all manner of bad behavior.”
The larger facility now allows BRCAC to expand its services. In addition to the initial cognitive therapy, it offers life skills counseling. “That’s something we’ve never, never had before,” said Pol. “Toni Dunbar, our family advocate, just got her degree in social work. She’s not licensed for the cognitive therapy but is counseling some of the children — even those who have gone through the initial therapy process and have come back because of an issue. Their parents might call and say they’re acting out. If they get that initial therapy, they know they can always come back to us as a resource for them.”
The Graveses helped with this effort, too, by providing a grant. Additional grants have come from the Society for the Preservation of Lagniappe in Louisiana, the group responsible for Spanish Town Mardi Gras.
“They’ve been very generous,” added Pol. “Three of its members are on our board.
“It’s great that we’re being able to expand; we have a waiting list.”