Sandusky penalty paying for agencies that protect children

Sandusky penalty paying for agencies that protect children

Midway through her talk with forensic interviewer Mary Bunyard, the 17-year-old provided a crucial detail about the man who abused her.

An investigator watching from another room had the proof needed to corroborate her story. He grabbed a phone, and within minutes the suspect was arrested.

"I came out of the interview and they said, 'We got this guy already,' " Bunyard said.

Charges were filed the next day, and the man recently pleaded guilty to criminal sexual assault.

Such quick action would not have been so easy without Jerry Sandusky.

Part of the penalty paid by Penn State for its failure to act on years of child abuse by its former assistant football coach found its way to the Children's Advocacy Center in Champaign.

The agency, which provides a safe place to interview children who've been abused, used the grant to hire Bunyard as its first on-staff interviewer in January.

Before, the sensitive interviews were done by 34 different people — investigators from police agencies or the Department of Children and Family Services, who were also pursuing the cases. They wouldn't have been able to stop the interview midstream to make an arrest — risking valuable time when evidence might be destroyed or suspects could escape.

"They were always thinking two questions ahead, because they had to think about the case. Now they can be thinking about the case, and Mary can think about the interview," said center Director Adelaide Aime.

For all of the anguish caused by Sandusky's crimes, one positive has emerged: more than $2.3 million this year alone funneled to community agencies across the Midwest that help protect children.

Under a settlement with the Big Ten Conference, Penn State forfeited its share of conference bowl revenue for four years. The Big Ten chancellors and presidents decided to divide the money evenly among the 12 conference schools and allow them to choose what organizations would benefit.

"In a general sense, given the nature of the Penn State matter, a lot of folks felt that targeting agencies and support groups and organizations that do advocate or somehow support children's rights or children's safety was the right way to go," said Brad Traviolia, deputy commissioner of the Big Ten. "But there really aren't any specific strings attached."

Each share amounted to $188,344 this year. Traviolia expects the total to grow next year, as bowl revenue is higher. The Big Ten sent a second team to the lucrative Bowl Championship Series in January.

He said the conference hasn't decided whether the money will be split among the same 12 schools or Maryland and Rutgers as well, which will join the conference July 1.

Some schools, including the University of Illinois, chose to give the money to local United Way organizations to distribute. Others sent it directly to Boys and Girls Clubs or other child-advocacy groups.

"The Penn State matter was trying for a lot of people, but we think that a lot of good use is coming from these funds," Traviolia said.

The United Way of Champaign County distributed $44,586 to four nonprofit agencies that work with abused and neglected kids: The Children's Advocacy Center, the Crisis Nursery, Champaign County Court-Appointed Special Advocates, and Rape Advocacy, Counseling and Education Services.

How has it been used? To teach children how to deal with bullying and harassment, to prevent abuse later; to train teachers and camp counselors how to spot signs of child abuse and what to do about it; to help investigate abuse cases and resolve them more quickly; and to help abused and neglected children get counseling faster.

Sue Grey, United Way president and CEO, said she will put together an official report for the university and Big Ten later this spring. But she's pleased with the way the four agencies have collaborated on how to use the funds.

"It's pretty amazing," Grey said. "We're creating awareness, and people are getting trained to keep their eyes open for these young people."

The United Way also set aside $10,000 for community awareness efforts, including four billboards throughout the county reminding people to be aware of child abuse and act on it — that "it's everybody's job," she said.

"We all agree that this is tragic in the way that these funds came about. But if we can use these dollars for good, and to make a difference in our community, especially for these children who are so vulnerable, then that's the best we can do," Grey said.

UI Associate Chancellor Michael DeLorenzo said the UI will likely again work with the United Way to distribute the money over the next three years. He plans to meet with Grey to review the grants this summer.

There are no guarantees the same organizations will get the money, DeLorenzo said, but those are the primary agencies that address child abuse directly.

"We certainly trust them. They're reputable organizations that have a proven record of helping children," said campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

In case the money is not renewed, agencies are trying to figure out how they can continue the programs in other ways — finding new grants or perhaps charging a small fee.

"That's the $64,000 question," Grey said. "We really don't want these things to go away if we can help it."

Here's a look at how the money has been used:

Crisis Nursery

Teachers, day-care workers, coaches and camp counselors are learning how to spot the signs of child abuse, and how to handle it.

The agency, which takes in children at risk of abuse or neglect because of family crises, has put the money toward "Stewards of Children" training, offered by a group called Darkness Into Light for so-called "mandated reporters" of child abuse, said Executive Director Stephanie Record.

The nursery has scheduled 35 training sessions through June, some at the Crisis Nursery and others at churches and child-care centers throughout the community. It's also reaching out to school and park district programs that work with children.

With help from the grant, the Crisis Nursery provided the training for free to its own staff and volunteers and to 500 more people throughout the community.

Nearly 450 people have signed up so far, including some parents, Record said.

"Our phone was kind of ringing off the hook after the initial press release," she said.

Record said the nursery had done previous training about how to teach kids about stranger-danger, but "90 percent of sexual abuse happens with someone they know."

This training gives adults the facts about child abuse and how important it is to minimize opportunities for it to occur, she said.

"That was one of the parts that really hit home with me — thinking about the situations that you're putting your children in, where they might be one-on-one with an adult," she said.

It also emphasizes that adults shouldn't be afraid to talk to their kids about it, "letting them know that it's OK to tell a trusted adult. It's not their fault," she said. "There's such a stigma to it that people kind of shy away from it."

With eight staff members now trained as facilitators, the nursery can continue to offer the program for a small fee even if the funding is not renewed, as the materials only cost $10 per person, she said.

CASA

CASA, which represents abused or neglected children in court proceedings, hopes to use the money to expedite counseling services for its young clients.

It can take several months for a child to get into counseling, a service crucial to their healing process, said Executive Director Rush Record.

"You can imagine the severity of the abuse these kids have received. They need to have the proper services in place to be able to cope with that mentally," he said.

The sheer volume of cases, and the state's precarious financial situation, have led to the delays, he said. "Some counselors aren't taking these cases anymore," Record said. "There are many, many more children than there are counselors available."

CASA currently has 239 active cases involving 421 children and so far this year has been "very busy," he said. It has 131 volunteer advocates trained to represent those children.

Record had hoped to contract with a therapist to facilitate payment and speed up the counseling process, but he's run into some unforeseen administrative delays. The idea is "relatively complicated" and somewhat unusual for an advocates program to take on, he said.

"We knew we would have obstacles," he said, though he hopes they can be resolved soon.

RACES

The theme here: prevention, prevention, prevention.

Much of this agency's grant has gone to expand public education programs. It hired three former volunteers to conduct violence-prevention workshops in local schools to comply with Illinois' new "Erin's Law," which took effect Jan. 1, 2013, and mandates age-appropriate child sexual abuse education for pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.

Rape Advocacy, Counseling, & Education Services has worked with the Champaign school district to train teachers and schedule interactive educational sessions with each school, said Executive Director Kerri True-Funk.

The agency also brought in a trainer from the "radKIDS," a national safety education program for children based on self-esteem and empowerment, she said. Sixteen local instructors are now trained, including six UI police officers and seven employees/volunteers at RACES.

While many programs talk to kids about how to handle bullying or other aggressive behavior, they don't give them a chance to practice it, True-Funk said.

With radKIDS, they learn strategies for different scenarios, discuss them with adults and then try them out. If they're backed into a corner by a bully who tries to hit them, for instance, they're taught to "block, run and tell." If a stranger tries to force them into a car, they learn physical skills for how to resist.

"If we teach kids that nobody's allowed to hurt them, to violate their bodies and their personal space, and that they're not allowed to do it to other people, it starts to create a climate where violence is not acceptable," she said.

RadKIDS is being piloted at the after-school program at Urbana's Yankee Ridge Elementary School and will be offered this summer at a Champaign day camp. It's gotten good reviews so far.

True-Funk has already had requests from day-care educators and school social workers to offer more instructor-training, so they can incorporate it into their jobs. A session is planned for July.

Long-term, the goal is to decrease the incidence of sexual abuse and dating violence, True-Funk said.

"What starts out as bullying in third, fourth and fifth grade turns into sexual harassment, both verbal and physical, in middle school and high school. From there it tends to escalate further. "If we can shut down that early behavior and teach them ways to problem-solve and relate to other children, it can hopefully decrease the incidences later," she said.

Children's Advocacy Center

Having a trained expert on site to interview children who've been abused has been a goal of the Children's Advocacy Center for more than a decade, said Aime, the agency's director. It's considered the standard for the network of 700 advocacy centers across the country, she said.

Bunyard conducted more than 300 interviews in her previous job as a Champaign police officer, specializing in child-abuse investigations, before retiring Nov. 15.

While investigators from DCFS or other police agencies can still do the interviews if they'd like, they choose Bunyard 90 percent of the time "because it works better for their case, and the kids," Aime said.

The obvious benefit is consistency, said Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz, who also serves on the center's board.

Interviewing a child who has been traumatized in a sensitive way that is also legally admissible is extremely difficult — and crucial for a successful prosecution, she said.

"You cannot put words in that child's mouth, or thoughts in the child's head. The way you form a question is absolutely vital to ensuring that what the child is saying is coming from the child's own mind," Rietz said.

"We know when we have a case come in and Mary's the interviewer, that it's going to be done appropriately and we will be able to put it in front of a judge and in front of a jury with confidence."

Forensic interviewers are trained to get as much detail as possible so that children don't have to go through it again and investigators can the evidence they need.

Investigators watch the interviews on a video screen in an adjoining room and can send Bunyard questions during the interview. In a recent case, Bunyard stepped out during a break to confer with an officer, and was able to ask a crucial follow-up question.

The new arrangement has also been much more convenient for families, during what is usually the worst time of their lives, Aime said. They typically have to take time off work and arrange child-care to be there, but in the past police interviewers sometimes had to cancel at the last minute if they were suddenly called away on another case, Aime said.

Having Bunyard on staff eliminates that problem. It also frees up investigators' time so they can focus on their other responsibilities, Aime said.

And for children or families who might be suspicious of a DCFS worker or police investigator, Bunyard is a neutral third party.

"I can say, I'm not a police officer. I'm not from DCFS. I'm not going to come to your home. I'm not going to investigate your dad. My role is simply to sit here and talk to you," said Bunyard, who has already handled close to 30 interviews.

Aime is exploring how to continue funding Bunyard's position if the grant is not renewed next year. It will pay for the position through December.

About $4,300 of the grant was used for an activity-based therapy group for girls in fifth through seventh grade who've suffered abuse. The center contracted with a specialized therapist from ABC Counseling, who uses art and other activities to encourage girls to talk about why they're there and learn coping skills, Aime said.

After hearing from another participant, one girl told the therapist she didn't realize there were other people who'd been through what she had.

"She thought she was the only one," Aime said. "It's a lifesaver."

Around the Big Ten

How other conference schools allocated their share:

Iowa — $28,000 went to 6 groups, including 5 child advocacy/protection centers in the Hawkeye State.

Michigan — A 3-way split among Ann Arbor-area agencies specializing in child-abuse prevention.

Michigan State — Used all of it to establish a foundation promoting child safety in a 5-county region.

Ohio State — Divvied it up 2 ways, half to Nationwide Children's Hospital, half to Franklin County CASA.

Purdue — 4 beneficiaries included College Mentors for Kids, which pairs "Little Buddies" with PU students.

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