A former union hall is being transformed into a kid-friendly space designed to help children talk about — and begin healing from — awful things adults have done to them.
The Camden County Child Advocacy Center, to be operated by the Special Victims Unit of the county prosecutor's office, is expected to open this spring at 1137 Federal St. in downtown Camden.
I visited this $1.5 million work-in-progress on Thursday, and was impressed by the enhanced help it will offer victims, as well as its benefits for the law enforcement and other professionals pursuing justice on their behalf. I also left with profound admiration for the half-dozen professionals I met who do this difficult but essential work.
"The center is something that's been talked about for years and years," says Deputy First Assistant Prosecutor Grace C. MacAulay, the chief of the unit and also an intrepid guide during a tour of the busy construction site.
"This is where victims and their families will enter," she says, standing inside the nearly 5,000-square-foot structure. It was built as a police union headquarters in 1997.
"This will be the children's waiting room, and on this wall there will be a lovely, hand-painted mural," MacAulay says.
There also will be a medical office where children can be examined for evidence of sexual abuse or other trauma.
"The child is first," she adds. "They are the true innocents. The most vulnerable."
The center will replace the unit's utilitarian sixth-floor suite of rental offices in another downtown building. The current set-up is functional but less than ideal for young victims. The new facility has been designed to better serve their needs, as well as to enable better coordination of services by the multiple agencies involved in cases of sexual and physical abuse, endangerment, and exploitation of children.
The facility has been made possible by strong support from Camden County Prosecutor Mary Eva Colalillo, who provided $250,000 in federal forfeiture justice account funds, as well as $1 million from the Camden County Board of Freeholders and two grants from the state Department of Children and Families. "It's the best project of any of the projects in the city," says Mike Mangold, a retired detective who is chief of staff in the prosecutor's office.
"The CAC is not just a building," says Megan Price, a victim witness advocate with the unit. She calls it "a physical and psychological safe space for children to share their story" with specially trained law enforcement, medical, and mental-health professionals.
The unit investigates 500 to 600 complaints or referrals related to suspected child abuse or endangerment made annually in Camden County, largely by local law enforcement, schools, hospitals, and New Jersey's Division of Child Protection and Permanency. Camden County prosecutes about 350 cases a year, most of which are resolved through plea agreements, thereby saving children the trauma of having to testify in court.
These days, people could be forgiven for thinking we've heard it all with regard to sexual misconduct involving adults, and in some instances adults and underage victims. But nothing prepared me for the examples MacAulay gives when I ask what sorts of cases her investigators and other professionals encounter.
Criminal cases involving children — especially the very young or developmentally disabled — being beaten, burned, or sexually abused, often by family members, are far from uncommon. Such as the case of a 10-month-old baby brought to a city emergency room wailing from the pain of broken bones throughout his body. Or an 8-year-old girl who was repeatedly raped by her mother's boyfriend.
Or the 13-year-old boy who was sexually assaulted again and again during a nine-month period; in that case, a Camden County jury last week found Jason Wagner, 46, of Collingswood, guilty. He is to be sentenced in February.
"Child abuse is so complex," notes Sgt. Amy Pisano, who also works in the Special Victims Unit. "There is often an intermingling of family relationships. The victims care about the parents who are abusing them. It's a web that creates a confusing situation."
Says MacAulay: "The child is first. We don't want to see them re-victimized" by the investigative process.
The unit already is working toward accreditation by the National Children's Alliance, which sets standards for child advocacy centers. And there's a nonprofit, all-volunteer group called Friends of the Camden County Child Advocacy Center, headed by retired assistant prosecutor Diane Marano.
Volunteers will help educate the public about what the center is and does; despite all the news coverage about accusations of adult sex crimes or related offenses, some people aren't aware of the Special Victims Unit, or confuse it with state programs.
That's why the publicity about sexual harassment among celebrities may prove useful "if it helps to empower victims to come forward … and not be ashamed," says Marano.
The Friends group will raise money to help meet the needs of the victims; MacAulay cites as examples a deaf victim who may need a hearing aid, a victim who may need additional therapy, and the little girl she mentioned earlier, whose bedroom — the scene of the crime — required repainting and restoration.
In a nod to the unit's staff, Marano says: "It takes a special person to do this kind of work."
About that, I have no doubt.
"We're making the community safer for all children," Pisano says.
Noting that some offenders have multiple victims, she adds: "In one recent case, a child was empowered to come forward because another victim came forward.