SUMMERDALE, Alabama — The past year has definitely been a challenge for the Baldwin County Child Advocacy Center/CARE House.
“I hesitate to call it positive, but it has definitely been a learning experience for us,” said Executive Director Nikki Whitaker. “It has definitely challenged us not to get caught up in convention.”
Created as a central location to conduct examinations and interviews for children who are sexually and physically abused, the Baldwin County Child Advocacy Center opened its doors in 1989 and “continues to provide a child-friendly environment for child victims,” according to its website, baldwincountycac.org.
With a satellite location in Bay Minette, the Child Advocacy Center expanded its Summerdale facility in 2019 and faced numerous challenges when Gov. Kay Ivey issued a stay at home order for all Alabama residents in March of 2020.
“Our facility relies on in-person interviews and in-person examinations,” Whitaker said. “When things shut down, a lot of places went to online services, but we determined that if at all possible, we were going to continue to conduct in-person exams when it was safe for us to do so.”
At the same time, Whitaker said, the organization has learned to use available technology to make online contact safer for counselors and the families they serve.
In 2019, the Child Advocacy Center conducted 272 interviews, Whitaker said. The exact same number of interviews were conducted in 2020.
“I consider that to reflect an increase in cases, considering the fact that normally the majority of our cases are reported in the fall and spring, when school is in session,” Whitaker said. “In 2020, school was shut down from March through July, meaning that we believe that cases that would normally have been reported during those months didn’t get reported.”
A large number of cases are also reported through church organizations, Whitaker said, which was also shut down for an extended period during the year.
Since August, the Child Advocacy Center has seen a jump in the number of cases.
“We’ve been crazy busy,” Whitaker said. “Examinations are not only hard on children and their families, they are also hard on the case workers, so we’ve always tried to limit the number of exams to three per day.”
Before COVID, Whitaker said, counselors were conducting no more than 13 examinations per week. Since August, that number has jumped to 15 to 16 examinations, sometimes up to 18 in a week.
One of the most disturbing trends over the past year has come in the form of sexting, Whitaker said, which is sending explicit photos through phones and other devices. Cases have involved adult to child communications, as well as child to adult and child to child communications.
“In years past, our focus on these cases has primarily been on children 12 and up,” Whitaker said, “but over the past year, we’ve seen a disturbing trend involving children as young as 8.”
Whitaker believes the trend has been because of the increased online access children have had over the past year.
“Some of it involving children we feel is innocent,” she said. “Children are online conducting searches and stumble onto something they shouldn’t be looking at. We also believe that predators are aware that children have more access and less supervision and are taking advantage of it.
“I think it was important for us to recognize that it doesn’t matter the age of the child. We were too focused on a target group and we’ve had to realize that anyone can be a target, no matter how old they are.”
The result is an expansion of the organization’s education programs, which in the past have been primarily focused on upper elementary to middle school age students. The program has now been expanded to include students has young as second grade.
The past year also saw an increase in spending from $532,800 in 2019 to $551,800 in 2020, while experiencing a 10 percent loss in revenue, Whitaker said, including the canceling of the organization’s main fundraiser, the Under the Stars annual event at Oak Hollow Farms. An online auction was held in 2020, while this year’s event has been scheduled for June.
The Child Advocacy Center continues to work with the Baldwin County District Attorney’s Office, the Department of Human Resources, law enforcement, medical and mental health agencies to minimize trauma to child victims of abuse, Whitaker said.
Counseling services are offered to child victims of abuse and their families free of charge. Services include assessments and individual, family and group counseling.
For more information about the Baldwin County Child Advocacy Center/CARE House, visit baldwincountycac.org, call 251-989-2555 for the Center’s Summerdale location, or 251-937-2055 for the Bay Minette location.