A place to help survivors of abuse

Windham County Safe Place supports people — mostly kids — throughout the criminal-justice process, from the reporting of a crime until the case is resolved

BRATTLEBORO — If you've never heard of a children's advocacy center or a special investigative unit, you aren't alone.

Despite our agency, Windham County Safe Place, having existed here for the past eight years, many people in our community aren't familiar with us or what kind of work we do here.

We provide support to victims of childhood physical and sexual abuse and to adults who have experienced sexual assault.

It is estimated that one in 10 children will experience sexual abuse before they turn 18 (statistics from the nonprofit Darkness to Light), so it is extremely likely that you, reader, know at least one person who has been the victim of child abuse.

So how do we address those statistics in Windham County?

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Let's start with special investigative units, or SIUs. SIUs are more specific to Vermont than a child advocacy center, and they are more focused on the investigative aspect of these types of cases.

An SIU is a county-wide task force charged with investigating reports of child sexual abuse, serious child physical abuse, and adult sexual assault. It is made up of law-enforcement officers, social workers from the Department for Children and Families, probation officers, state's attorneys, victim advocates, and others tasked with supporting a victim throughout the criminal-justice process, from the reporting of a crime until the case is resolved.

All of these agencies and individuals make up what is called a multi-disciplinary team. The team members work together to ensure that each case is handled in a timely, thorough manner and that the victim is supported and informed through the process.

Since team members are communicating with one another, victims won't have to repeat their stories over and over, minimizing the impact of the judicial process on their day-to-day lives.

Children's advocacy centers (CACs) exist all over Vermont, across the U.S., and around the globe. They are working to support child victims of abuse and their families as well as educate the community about prevention.

A children's advocacy center strongly overlaps with the SIU, but it also offers a physical space for victims to be interviewed and to meet with support services.

CACs emphasize support services as critical needs for victims of abuse; such services include victim advocacy, mental-health treatment, and medical care. Their work balances nicely with the focus of SIUs.

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In Windham County, our children's advocacy center and special investigation unit are combined, creating one organization - Windham County Safe Place - that provides both coordinated investigations and access to support services for not only children but also adult victims of sexual assault.

So how does a victim access these services?

Referrals to Safe Place generally come from either DCF's Family Services Division or law enforcement. Some adult survivors may contact Safe Place directly to report abuse they have experienced, but ultimately either law enforcement, DCF Family Services, or both entities must be involved in all cases referred to us.

Anyone in the community can report suspected abuse to DCF, law enforcement, or both. While community members at large cannot refer a specific case to Safe Place, community members are encouraged to call us with questions about how to make a report or to learn more about what a family might experience if they come through Safe Place's door.

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We are hoping to reach our community more often through columns like this one, and we believed that writing this first one in April - Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month - would be timely.

If we are doing our work successfully, you will have heard of one of our many community events going on this month. Hopefully, you will decide to join us at one of them!

Safe Place makes extra efforts to have special events going on in April, but the work to raise awareness about child abuse and sexual assault goes on all year long. Community education presentations happen at schools, and with community groups, all the time.

Education and awareness is just one small part of the work that goes on at Safe Place. In the coming months, we will write about many different aspects of child abuse and sexual assault. If you have a topic of particular interest, please feel free to reach out to us and we will do our best to address it in the future.

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