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Court scene led attorney to war against child abuse

PINEVILLE, La. (BP)–Mike Johnson recalls the day a few years ago when he was in court to represent a client on a matter. As he waited for his case to be called, he watched the other matters brought before the judge. One case involved a man facing a child abuse charge. The details of what the man had done to a 6-year-old girl were recounted.
Johnson could not believe such a thing had happened in his central Louisiana community of Pineville. “I thought it would be front-page news the next day and was amazed to find out that it was not even reported,” he recounted.
Johnson began to ask why — and the things he discovered were disturbing: About 1,000 reported cases of child abuse occur in his parish (county) alone each year, ranging from various forms of neglect to unimaginable forms of cruelty and sexual abuse. Yet as many as nine out of every 10 instances of child abuse are never reported, meaning the actual number of instances could reach 10,000 in his parish.
“I’ve seen cases where children’s arms were pulled out of socket in a malicious way, where they’ve been scalded — put into boiling water — as punishment,” said Johnson, an attorney and a member of Pineville’s Park Baptist Church. “You don’t think that kind of stuff goes on where you live, but it does.”
As Johnson found out the facts and figures related to child abuse in his area, he also found something else within himself as well — motivation, a desire to make a difference.
“What you find out when you look at the situation is it’s not just a particular race of children who suffer,” he said. “It’s not just a particular economic class of children. It could just as easily be my kid, your kids, your grandkids, your nephews and nieces. And it happens right where you live.
“I have an 8-year-old little red-headed boy and a 10-year-old little red-headed girl. And it doesn’t take too much to motivate me more than to think that could be one of them.
“That was my motivation.”
Johnson soon found another group of area persons who had a similar motivation and had been meeting to discuss what they could do about the problem. He joined with them in their focus on three goals — to help victims of abuse, to help aid prosecution of child abuse perpetrators and to help prevent future instances of abuse.
One of the first things the group discovered was that the local school system did not even have a policy for reporting and dealing with child abuse cases. That was key, Johnson says, noting about 80 percent of reports come from schools.
The group immediately drafted a policy for schools in the area — and set about educating teachers and other school personnel about their responsibilities related to abuse.
The group also began to look at the way the system worked once a report was filed — and found it simply was not working well enough in terms of taking care of children.
While the police, for example, were part of the system, their primary goal was to gather evidence, investigate reported instances and make arrests. They cared about the children involved, but the welfare of the child was not their primary focus, Johnson said.
The district attorney’s office also was part of the system. Its primary goal lay with prosecuting persons charged with abuse — and getting convictions. Its assigned responsibility did not include watching out for the welfare of the child.
Finally, the system included the office of protection services, which was charged with taking care of the children involved in abuse cases. The problem was that each worker in the office was responsible for about 100 cases — far too many to ensure effectiveness.
To make things worse, the three components of the system were not working well together. Often, a child would be expected to tell his or her story several times — to police, to the district attorney, to child protection workers and maybe even in court at some point.
Often, children found the surroundings — the police station, an attorney’s office — very frightening and simply would not talk. They would cry. Or if they did talk, they told the story differently each time, creating a nightmare for prosecutors and parents as well. In many cases, parents were tiring of the trauma of having a child retell his or her experience so often, simply dropping the case or settling for a reduced plea bargain.
“Cases weren’t getting prosecuted,” Johnson said. “Children weren’t getting helped. … The system just wasn’t working. The different agencies were not working together.”
The group set about to change that fact, bringing representatives of each part of the system together to draft a protocol for handling cases. It was a tedious effort that underwent 25 drafts before everyone agreed on the plan — a plan emphasizing the best interests of the child, Johnson says.
With a plan in place, the group then began looking for means of implementation. The idea was to set up a center where children could be interviewed in a comfortable setting, where a trained person would conduct the interview in a way that did not frighten the child.
The problem was the group had no funding to speak of — and no prospects for a center location.
Suddenly, however, a local Episcopal church contacted the group and offered a dilapidated, 120-year-old house in a perfect location for the center. It fit their idea for a site — and it could be renovated to fit their purposes.
“We all sat around in wonder that this thing came out of the clear blue sky. Of course, we know that’s not what happened, but that’s the way it appeared,” Johnson said, indicating his belief that God had a hand in the process.
The center opened late last year and began interviews with children soon afterward. Now, every child involved in a sexual abuse situation is brought to the Rapides Children’s Advocacy Center. Once there, they wait in an outer room designed for children. There is colorful art work on the wall, a video recorder and television (complete with kid videos), books, a bean bag chair, a Barney puzzle and a crib full of stuffed animals.
When it is time, the child is brought to another room by Tammie Lewis, a member at First Baptist Church of Pineville. Lewis and the child sit in a comfortable room for the interview. A box of small toys and anatomically correct dolls (for use in the interview) sits nearby. On a high shelf, a video camera is nestled in a row of stuffed animals.
Representatives of the police or other agencies watch the interview from another room, unseen by the child. They are able to feed questions to Lewis via an earphone.
The child is interviewed only once — the interview is taped so future questioning is no longer needed. That keeps the child from having to relive his or her experience again and again, Johnson said.
It also helps in prosecution of cases. In another parish, implementation of a similar system helped tremendously, Johnson said. Previously, officials were able to convict or plea bargain about 60 percent of abuse cases. Since the system was implemented, the rate has risen to 97 percent.
With a taped interview as evidence, prosecution of cases is made much easier, Johnson said, noting, “… we’ve not had any instances where the child has frozen up. That’s a sign that the interviewer is doing a good job and we’re getting information we need.”
The center also brings together representatives of all agencies involved in cases each month and reviews what is being done, to make sure the agencies are working together and the needs of the child are being met. The center seeks to make sure every child who needs counseling gets it, Johnson added.
Finally, the center has launched what is called the Court Appointed Special Advocate program. Under this program, persons undergo intensive training and are sworn in by the court to speak up for the needs of abused and neglected children. In essence, the volunteer works for the judge in behalf of the child — making sure the child is not lost in the process and does not become a victim once again.
Each volunteer is given one case at a time. “This is where you have an opportunity to really help children,” Johnson said. “You follow the child through whatever life the case has in the courts. No longer are the children alone. No longer are the families alone. Now, they have a contact person, someone to help them stick it out and not bail out. I know of no better thing we can do for children facing this kind of situation.
“You wonder how it was allowed to go on for so long without someone to speak up for the child.”
Renee Craft, executive director of the Rapides Children’s Advocacy Center, said it is helping the different agencies learn the role of each other and work together.
“It’s just so easy to get caught up in your own area,” Craft said. “(I)f everyone is not working together for the good of the child, then we’ve lost another one.”
That is unacceptable to Craft.
“These are just kids,” she said. “The things they have seen and experienced are more than you think any child should ever have to know about or deal with.”

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  • Lacy Thompson