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Advocacy center model of support

In a downtown Fargo office building, a young child answers questions about the sexual abuse she endured. In the next room, a multidisciplinary team sits around a table, watching the interview on closed-circuit television. Police officers, social ...

Red River Children's Advocacy Center

In a downtown Fargo office building, a young child answers questions about the sexual abuse she endured.

In the next room, a multidisciplinary team sits around a table, watching the interview on closed-circuit television.

Police officers, social workers, prosecutors, medical doctors, mental health professionals and family advocates gather at the Red River Children's Advocacy Center.

Thanks to this place, they collaborate like never before to ensure child abuse victims receive justice.

The nonprofit agency moved into the Professional Building, 100 S. 4th St., in April. There, alleged victims of child abuse are interviewed, medically examined and counseled in a child-friendly environment.

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Before, the child and family needed to go to each individual agency, sometimes having to tell their story multiple times.

The model is more nurturing, supporters of the center say, and reduces the chance of revictimization.

The coordination also is more effective for the involved agencies, they say.

"You're closer to the investigation, you're closer to the victim, which theoretically should transfer to better prosecution," said Aaron Birst, an assistant Cass County state's attorney.

While the agencies have been cooperating on abuse cases for several years, having the Red River Children's Advocacy Center brings them under one roof.

Children's advocacy centers first started about 20 years ago in Huntsville, Ala. The idea started with Congressman Bud Cramer, who saw a need for a better system, and a team focus.

There are now more than 650 centers across the United States, including one in Bismarck and now in Fargo.

Establishing a local advocacy center was discussed for a decade, and slowly implemented. Funding was a major hindrance.

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The Nemzek House on Minnesota State University Moorhead's campus has been used to interview child victims in Clay County since 2003. But it lacks a place for medical examinations, said Robert Porter, an investigator with the Moorhead Police Department.

In 2004, local agencies signed a memorandum of understanding, formally agreeing to establish the center.

They collaborated at MeritCare's Coordinated Treatment Center until the Red River Children's Advocacy Center found its home earlier this year.

The site includes an exam room, complete with a child-sized exam table and a colposcope - a lighted magnifying instrument to see and document evidence of sexual abuse.

Medical director Dr. Alonna Norberg does the specialized medical exams, sits in on interviews and serves as an expert witness in trials. Norberg worked at a child advocacy center in Akron, Ohio, before moving to North Dakota.

She describes the advocacy center model as the standard of care in cases of suspected abuse.

"It facilitates the whole process in a more timely matter," Norberg said. "It's a location that's child-friendly and feels safe to children and families."

Family members can sit in the kitchen and share a cup of coffee with investigators and advocates. A cramped closet holds toys, blankets and clothes for the children who come there.

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Now firmly established, the center has proven itself with recent prosecutions, Norberg and others said.

One of the most public was the May 15 conviction of Andrew and Shannon Muhle, a West Fargo couple accused of raping two children, a 4-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl. The presentence investigation for the case is ongoing.

"All the pieces came together like clockwork," Beth Tjon Wosick, executive director of the Red River Children's Advocacy Center, said about the case.

The "example case" in Clay County will be Paul Lehr's trial, Porter said.

Lehr, accused of sexually molesting seven different girls in cases dating back to 1997, will appear Aug. 25 in Clay County District Court.

In 2005, operating out of MeritCare, the advocacy center saw 203 children.

This year, 154 children have been served by the center as of July 10. About two-thirds of the children are female.

It's not that there's more abuse occurring, said Tjon Wosick, but more cases are being seen by the center.

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All abuse cases must first be reported to law enforcement or social services. They are then referred to the advocacy center.

The center serves Cass and Clay counties, as well as outlying communities. Cases have been referred from Ransom, Barnes, Walsh and Traill counties in North Dakota and Polk and Becker in Minnesota.

Tjon Wosick said there aren't boundary issues. "Each agency still does their job. They do it better because we train them," and coordinate their efforts.

The center has a data system that all the agencies can access. Those involved with interviews and examinations gather for monthly case reviews.

Public and private grants and individual donations fund most of center's work. The North Dakota Legislature approved $100,000 in funding in 2005 to be split between the advocacy centers in Fargo and Bismarck.

In-kind donations of staff time, as well as donations of items including furniture and items for the kid's closet, are also important, Tjon Wosick said.

For Chip Ammerman, supervisor of the Cass County Social Services Family Service Division, the advocacy center's importance extends beyond prosecuting offenders.

It supports the victim and nonoffending family members, makes sure children are physically healthy and assesses the mental health needs of the child.

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"It's just not to collect information," he said. "It is the triage of service."

Broad community support from the legal system, law enforcement, medical community and businesses also illustrates the need for the center.

"Our community is saying we're going to protect children," Ammerman said. "We're saying our kids are going to be safe in our community."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5525

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