Children’s Advocacy | Eastern North Carolina Now

    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of ECU News Services. The author of this post is Spaine Stephens.

Representatives from ECU, TEDI BEAR Children’s Advocacy Center and the Mount Olive community celebrate the Jan. 27 opening of the Mount Olive Children’s Advocacy Center. (ECU photos by Cliff Hollis)

    East Carolina University officially opened its Mount Olive Children's Advocacy Center (CAC) last week during a ribbon-cutting ceremony, ushering in a much-needed resource for addressing child abuse cases in underresourced eastern North Carolina counties.

    The center joins the Tender Evaluation, Diagnosis and Intervention for a BEtter Abuse Response (TEDI BEAR) Children's Advocacy Center in Greenville that provides evaluation, education and treatment services in cases of abuse or witness to violence. The Greenville and Mount Olive centers are supported by East Carolina University's Brody School of Medicine and ECU Health. The Mount Olive location is a sign of the successes in the TEDI BEAR clinic through ECU's ongoing partnerships with state, county and local governments and community organizations that are dedicated to reducing the impact that child abuse has in the East.

    One of nearly 900 children's advocacy centers across the United States, the TEDI BEAR Children's Advocacy Center is the largest center in North Carolina and is accredited to provide a full spectrum of assessment, treatment, education and prevention for children up to 18 years old who may have been victims of child abuse or neglect. The center is a partnership between the Department of Pediatrics at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University and the James and Connie Maynard Children's Hospital at ECU Health Medical Center.

    Each year, TEDI BEAR cares for more than 700 children from over 30 counties in eastern North Carolina. It is an accredited member of the National Children's Alliance and a member of the Children's Advocacy Centers of North Carolina. The Mount Olive center is the 51st office among the Child Advocacy Centers of North Carolina and, like its sister centers, provides free and confidential services in a child-friendly setting for victims of sexual abuse, severe physical abuse or children who are witnesses to violence.

    The center has become a vital part of so many communities in part because of its "team effort" approach through ECU and ECU Health.

    The new center will offer services to Wayne and Duplin counties and provide specialized evaluations following allegations of child abuse. The Mount Olive staff includes physician extenders, social workers and child and family advocates who will provide children and non-offending caregivers comprehensive, coordinated child-centered services to ensure child safety and promote healing.

    "To be able to open another center where kids have access in their local community to all of the services that they need to heal from the adverse childhood experiences that they've suffered is tremendous," said Deana Joy, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Centers of North Carolina state chapter office.

    The Greenville and Mount Olive child advocacy centers serve as a haven for children and caregivers referred to the center; services include child advocacy, a forensic interview, a medical examination and therapy, if needed. The medical examination identifies any signs of physical trauma, ensures that any lab work or other tests are performed and evaluates the child's overall health. This exam is conducted by a pediatrician or a nurse practitioner with special training in child abuse evaluation. TEDI BEAR also offers therapists whose special training in child abuse allows them to help victims and family members to resolve the trauma and move forward in their recovery.

    Forensic interviews are conducted by a TEDI BEAR staff member with special training in how children of different ages think, feel and communicate. They are recorded on video so that the child will not have to repeat painful information during the investigation process.

    "Child abuse is the one thing that nobody wants to talk about," Joy said. "In reality, it's happening more often than we recognize, and it's happening right under our noses. The only way that we can prevent that is to be the eyes and the ears for kids, and to speak up when they need us to."

    Bryant Gibson, CAC coordinator at Mount Olive, said that the socio-economic situation for many families in eastern North Carolina makes it difficult to drive, sometimes two or three hours, just to have a child go through a physical exam and recount what is probably the worst day of their lives to nurses, doctors and law enforcement who are complete strangers.

    During the ribbon cutting ceremony, Julie Gill, director of the TEDI BEAR center, read a list of the comments that children had given about their CAC experiences, many of which praised the caring nature of the staff. As Gill read the kids' feedback, Gibson became visibly emotional, based on his experiences as a former law enforcement official.

    "I have seen children go to the ends of the earth not to report what has happened to them. They will take on this trauma and not report it," Gibson said. "When I heard such positive comments, and their responses to the center, it just touched my heart because I know inside what they were going through. It just hit my heart."

    Vital for community

    Founded in 1992, the center is also supported by major grant funding by the North Carolina Governor's Crime Commission, the Children's Advocacy Centers of North Carolina, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, and the ECU Health Foundation. Also, donations from civic organizations and individual benefactors provide critical support for TEDI BEAR.

    The center has become a vital part of so many communities in part because of its "team effort" approach through ECU and ECU Health.

    TEDI BEAR helps train ECU students who are beginning careers in caring for children. Physicians who are completing their residency training in pediatrics regularly spend time at TEDI BEAR learning how to identify and assess the effects of child abuse and neglect. Students enrolled in ECU's child life programs may perform their internship at TEDI BEAR. TEDI BEAR staff also provide training for ECU students enrolled in nursing, dentistry, social work, education and criminal justice programs to help them better understand and prevent child abuse.

    In mirroring that model, the Mount Olive Children's Advocacy Center aims to include students from Mount Olive University in its operations as well - including nursing and criminal justice students.

    The children's advocacy centers also offer community education and training to help others recognize and address child abuse - including professionals in health care, social services, law enforcement and education as well as families and others who work with and care about children.

    For many years, the TEDI BEAR Community Educators have provided the "Stewards of Children" curriculum to hundreds of child-serving professionals and volunteers in both Wayne and Duplin counties. Established partnerships with local agencies such as WAGES community action group and the Partnership for Children, as well as new alliances with the military community at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base promote access to this training on how to prevent, recognize and respond to child sexual abuse.

    TEDI BEAR's success is also due in part to philanthropic support from the community and ECU-based groups, including fraternity and sorority life organizations. Current students provide consistent support for the university and its programs through their fundraising efforts, such as Kappa Delta's support of the center.

    Kaley Smith, vice president of events and programming for the ECU chapter of Kappa Delta, said last year that the sorority focuses its philanthropy efforts on preventing child abuse nationwide, and 80% of the local chapter's fundraising goes to TEDI BEAR as part of that national effort. In 2022, the chapter contributed $5,000, bringing its donations to TEDI BEAR to more than $115,000 since 2009. Funds are raised through events such as a pancake dinner, raffles and a fall carnival, Smith said.

    Children's advocacy leaders hope the Mount Olive Child Advocacy Center will also gain momentum as donors support its effort in its home counties.

    Among those also present for the Mount Olive CAC ribbon-cutting were Wayne County Sheriff Larry Pierce; David Tayloe of Goldsboro Pediatrics; Ernie Lee, district attorney for Duplin County's Prosecutorial District 5 and Matthew Ledoux, chair of the Brody School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics and pediatrician in chief at Maynard Children's Hospital.

    "Child abuse is happening in our communities at a rate of two out of every 10 children," Ledoux said. "The Children's Advocacy Centers get referrals from our community partners, law enforcement and DSS. The center is able, through our staff, to do interviews, find out what happened to them and refer them to the therapies that they need. It goes to the core of our mission at ECU and ECU Health, to serve the people of eastern North Carolina and for our purposes, the children of eastern North Carolina."

    Gill said the Mount Olive center is a dream come true for leaders and advocates who have been working to put resources in place in rural eastern North Carolina. The results, she said, are seen in the eyes of children who know they are in a safe space.

    "When you come on site and see what we do," Gill said, "you will never, ever forget it."
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