Blue tongues have taken over social media in recent weeks and not just because there has been an influx of blue suckers.

April serves as Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention month and the Ellis County Children’s Advocacy Center has already gotten a head start.

Lesli Deen, the executive director of the Ellis County Children’s Advocacy Center, is gaining community support as city councils across the county proclaim April 2019 Child Abuse Prevention month.

Ennis Mayor Angie Juenemann, Waxahachie and Glenn Heights city council members and Ellis County commissioners have all signed the proclamation. It will also be presented at the upcoming Red Oak and Midlothian council meetings.

The proclamation noted the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services confirmed 66,382 victims of child abuse or neglect across the state in 2018. That figure includes 320 individuals in Ellis County.

In 2018, over 58,000 children received critical services at children’s advocacy centers in Texas.

The ECCAC provided 244 families with advocacy services and completed 396 forensic interviews, in 2018; where 117 of those cases pertained to sexual abuse. For historical reference, the center held 211 forensic interviews in 2011 — meaning the number of cases has increased 13 percent in seven years.

The center also provided over 520 hours of free therapy services for children this past year.

”The role of the center is to be safe, and child-friendly environment for kids that have been victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse come and tell their story in a non-bias, safe place,” Deen explained.

Interviews are developmentally appropriate for the child and are conducted in a culturally sensitive setting and non-leading approach. This method allows the child to share their traumatic story once instead of several times to law enforcement, a judge, a counselor and so on.

So what does all of this have to do with the blue tongues on Facebook?

“We work with kids, and I thought we needed a very fun way to gain community support that we don’t want child abuse in our county,” Deen explained of the colorful campaign. “We are going to be really tacky and stick our tongues out at child abuse.”

People are encouraged to color their mouths blue with suckers and post with the hashtag #StickYourTongueOutAtChildAbuse. The color blue carries significance with the awareness campaign. The hashtag has several postings on social media, and the campaign has reached beyond Ellis County and into Johnson, Collin and Rockwall Counties.

“I would love for this to go nationwide,” Deen expressed. “It’s important to call out people outside Ellis County because child abuse is everywhere you go and bringing more awareness to that only brings good things.”

PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT

As the forensic interview is the beginning of the process at ECCAC, events that follow after are just as significant, if not more beneficial to the victim and their families.

The structure of the center was already established and has been enhanced in the last year to focus on individualized aid. The structure incorporates the forensic interview process, family advocacy and therapies.

“What we have found is that we have a huge deficit in therapy services," Deen said. "We should have been building the therapy programs this whole time. My focus is now to find the grant money to be able to build that program to where it needs to be.”

Currently, one full-time, certified therapist, Amber Ensign, is on staff along with a contracted part-time therapist, Kineta Hollsworth, that previously worked on-site for several years. Deen is focused on increasing the number of therapists and incorporate satellite offices in Ennis and Midlothian to better serve other areas.

A weekly parent support group has been implemented to help strengthen the families whose children are victims of abuse. This group addresses the immediate needs of families while they are on the waiting list for regular services. There is not a mandated required amount of sessions, registration is not required and childcare is provided.

“As they are dealing with behaviors and the fact that their child was abused, it can be pretty overwhelming for parents," Deen detailed.

These meetings take place weekly and are facilitated by family advocate Shelby Lott and program director Holly Scott. Currently, Deen and her team are working to fully restore the child group for regular meetings. There are now 100 children on the waiting list for mental health services, according to ECCAC documents.

Lott has been instrumental with the advancement of services provided by family advocates due to collaborating with other county agencies, attending conferences and implementing those ideas. A total of 244 families received advocacy services in 2018, and 523 child and adult therapy sessions took place.

Information provided to families aided by the advocacy center has been simplified into one sheet of paper with infographics so that it is easier for parents to comprehend.

Family advocates can assist in making counseling referrals to outside resources and accompany victims’ families in court.

“I can’t tell you how many times there has been a full courtroom there for the alleged perpetrator and then it’s the kid and their family on the other side,” Deen said. “So to have access to an advocate to be with you, so the child doesn’t feel alone that’s great.”

Many times the child or family is in a crisis, which allows the family advocate to act more like a case manager in analyzing all the needs of the family for crisis intervention. A total of 282 families received intervention in 2018.

The entire ECCAC staff completed training through the Office of the Texas Attorney General to apply for crime victims’ compensation. The family advocate communicates types of financial aid and assists through the application process that could help with burial costs, therapy, health-related bills, travel and more.

A total of 157 families received crime victims' compensation in 2018.

“We also have presumptive eligibility which means that when we will it out, we can send it straight to the crime victims’ compensation part of the government that helps process those,” Deen elaborated. “We get in a lot sooner than if the crime victim did it on their own.”

Family advocates also accompany child victims on medical exam visits. Deen shared a young girl recently attended a sexual assault nurse examination.

“She was scared to death and my entire staff was there waiting for her. It was a pretty amazing story,” Deen expressed.

The child had been going through therapy at the center and disclosed further information that required an additional interview. A relationship fostered between the ECCAC staff and the child, and when they returned from the SANE examination to the advocacy center, the child’s bravery was celebrated with unicorn cupcakes. This series of events influenced the child to trust the staff and talk about her traumatic experience for the first time.

Part of the court process for victims of sexual and physical abuse allows them to read an impact statement after the alleged perpetrator is found guilty. The family advocate can assist with this process.

Family advocates also aid families with finding outside supportive services, whether it be for basic needs, finding a job, earning a GED. “A lot of these families are proud or do not know how to ask for help and so we can link them to resources in the community.”

Next is for the advocacy center to incorporate a service or therapy dog. The county commissioners approved dogs in county facilities and Scott has agreed to take responsibility for the dog. Deen is seeking board approval and hopes the dog can be on-site in a year.

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Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450