Log in Newsletter

A Place to Feel Safe | By Sonia R. Garza

The Child Advocacy Center refuses to take child abuse sitting down – even on a chair specially made for pirates, fairies or storybook characters.

If there’s something childlike about this non-profit agency, it’s by design. The center’s annual Blue Jean Ball and Chair-ity Auction this fall was planned not only by a group of grownup volunteers but a child board to boot. The night was filled with adults and kids alike. The ballroom at Highland Country Club was filled to the brim with dancing children. Lights were flashing, and the music was booming. Adults bid on chairs which were painted and/or donated by various volunteers, including Mayor Tony Chavonne and N.C. Rep. Margaret Dickson.

A mother and daughter sat arm in arm, posing for the camera. “It’s my first time here,” said Lauren Reames, who is 10. “I came with lots of church friends.” Her mom, Kelly, smiled and added, “I love wearing the jeans, too.”

It might be one of the few fundraisers where children and adults come together and just one of many events hosted by the center to raise money and, most of all, awareness. The mission of the center is to provide a safe haven and a private facility for children and families suffering from sexual and physical child abuse.

Executive Director Tammy Laurence is well aware that it’s not an easy subject to talk about, but she says it is an important one. Cumberland County has the third highest number of child abuse cases in North Carolina. It is tied for second place in the number of deaths due to child abuse.

“I’ve been told that it’s hard to look at the cases, so why look at them?” Laurence said. “We have to take ownership of the problem because it’s an epidemic. We have to take ownership and do battle because those children are counting on us.”

Children find a welcoming place the minute they walk in the front doors on Ray Avenue, not far from downtown Fayetteville. The center almost looks more like a colorful playground with its bright walls and murals. A chorus of painted zoo animals greets visitors – lounging alligators to a lion king.

“The minute the child comes in, I take them by the hand and walk them up the steps, and they start talking,” says Detective Scott Wells of the Fayetteville Police Department. “It’s like you’re their best friend. It’s this place. It’s child friendly.”

The Child Advocacy Center was born in 1993. Before, children who had been abused were forced to tell their stories over and over, to teachers, social workers, police officers and lawyers. Each time was a new trauma. The CAC was designed to give children a safe place to tell their story only once. Before long, members of the Junior League of Fayetteville adopted the center as a signature project, obtained a building and painted the murals.

Now, those murals are much more than decoration – they are tools used by forensic interviewers. And behind the scenes, a team of workers come together to help a single child, a group made up of workers from the CAC, city police department, county sheriff’s department, the offices of the district attorney and medical examiner and others.

“The multidisciplinary team is the Child Advocacy Center,” Laurence said. “It’s not the building, it’s a concept. We all have a role to play.

“We see the worst of the worst.”

That’s why the CAC also works to prevent child abuse. Programs include:

Darkness 2 Light, a program geared toward child sexual abuse prevention. The CAC recently received a grant from the Children’s Trust Fund to take their Darkness 2 Light program into Cumberland County schools.

The Period of PURPLE Crying targets the shaken baby syndrome by sending two registered nurses to help new parents.

The CAC is one of the 22 accredited child advocacy centers in North Carolina. And Laurence says there is much the community can do to help.

“We cannot give the child their innocence back, it’s gone,” she said. “Not only do they lose their innocence, but we lose our innocence because we are changed by what we see.

“I think all of us can do something, I really do. That’s what gives me the hope.”