Child Abuse Prevention Month: Grandma's House takes holistic approach to child abuse investigations
Grandma’s House Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) supports children and their families through every step of investigations.
Michelle Steiner, executive director of Grandma’s House CAC, said the nonprofit takes a holistic approach to child abuse investigations.
“We’re not investigators, but we help families through the investigation process,” she said. “Grandma’s House acts as a central contact for that family. A lot of the investigators are out in the field, so if a family has questions they may be difficult to get ahold of. We help answer their questions and help them get connected to the resources they need.”
Steiner said there is no charge to the family for any of the services provided, including the counseling and medical services.
“It eliminates one of the barriers that might prevent a child and their family from getting the services they need,” she said, “as well as making all of these specialized services accessible.”
Instead of families having to travel to multiple locations, she said Grandma’s House provides all of the services they need and acts as a central meeting place for investigators, counselors and anyone else who needs to speak with the family.
“We can gather all the information that’s needed,” Steiner said, “and continue to follow up with the family and create a safety net behind them as they go through the investigation process.”
Prior to Grandma’s House opening in Carroll County, she said the closest CAC was in Springdale. The Carroll County branch is now located on the Berryville Public Square, she said, and is coming along nicely.
“Moving this location from Green Forest to Berryville has enabled us to provide all of our services here,” Steiner said. “Moving over here has enabled us to add a sexual abuse medical examination room as well as counseling services in addition to our child forensic interviews and child advocacy services and support services for families.”
She said Dr. Merlin Leach founded the original Grandma’s House in Green Forest to provide for the needs of children and families going through child abuse investigations.
“It was in a 100-year old house. Because of the way it was decorated, there were a few children who came through and said it looked like a grandma’s house,” Steiner said. “When we separated the CAC component from the Merlin Foundation, we took the name ‘Grandma’s House’ to honor Dr. Leach and everything he did.”
She said Grandma’s House and the Merlin Foundation are now two separate nonprofits but function as sister organizations.
When families arrive at Grandma’s House in Berryville, she said they enter the Child and Family Support Room to meet with their family advocate, who fills out general intake information and finds out what needs the family may have.
“The abuse situation may not be the only thing that needs to be addressed,” Steiner said. “There may be other things going on in the home either in relation to the abuse situation or it may be things they were already dealing with.”
She said Grandma’s House helps connect families to resources they may need and taps into community programs.
“The community may have scholarships for piano lessons, karate classes or things of that nature,” she said. “We do anything we can do to help that child feel empowered and help them through the situation.”
While the family advocate is gathering information, she said the family is also being provided with information and learning about the investigation process.
Steiner said Grandma’s House also has a Play Room for children to wait in during this process.
“This room will be modified at some point,” she said. “We have some local artists who have offered to do some painting for us. That will be a lot of fun. The Play Room is where kids can just go about the business of being kids.”
“They love this area,” said development coordinator Vickie Poulson.
Steiner said the building has a kitchen with snacks and juices for the children.
“If kids are hungry, that’s all they’re thinking about,” she said, “so we try to eliminate any of those things on the front end.”
Steiner said the counseling room is one of the best new additions at the Berryville location.
“We do a special type of counseling for children. It’s trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy,” she said. “That is a type of therapy they have determined to be best for children who are dealing with trauma. We can work with the child even if they’re working with another counselor.”
Steiner continued, “We can help that counselor get that information. To me, this is one of the neatest parts because we can do all of this on the front end. We want to get them here so we can help them get help and healing.”
Grandma’s House is also outfitted with an Interview Room, she said, where specially trained interviewers work as neutral fact-finders to help the child be able to tell their story.
“We actually have just received a grant which will enable us to get a different interview setup,” Steiner said, “so we’re really excited about that.”
She said the Sexual Abuse Medical Examination Room is equipped with a Cortexflo, which meets the photographic and video requirements to conduct forensic medical examinations of children who have suffered sexual and physical abuse.
“We’re really proud of this piece of equipment,” Steiner said. “We have a sexual assault nurse examiner, and we use this machine to record the examinations that we do. We have a Telemedicine unit which connects us to Arkansas Children’s Hospital if the nurse needs a second opinion or anything of that nature.”
Having the equipment at the Berryville location means families don’t have to travel to another city to have the examination done, she said.
“If you have a family who has transportation issues, taking off a day of work to go to Arkansas Children’s Hospital,” she said, “could be an extra burden. That’s a huge stress.”
Steiner said Grandma’s House also has an Observation Room were families can meet with the Arkansas State Police Crimes Against Children Division, the Department of Human Services Division of Children and Family Services, local law enforcement, prosecutors and anyone else who need to be involved.
“They can be here and take a collaborative approach,” she said. “That way they’re not having to go out individually and get their piece of information. They can talk with the family and let them know what’s going on and what the plan is from here.”
Steiner continued, “They go out and do their part of the process. We’ll go with the families for as long as they need us to. Some families need less than others, and some need more.”
When working with a child, she said the staff explains the process as they go through it.
“Oftentimes, these children have already been betrayed,” Steiner said. “We talk with them and answer any of their questions that we can at the time. It’s kind of like going to the doctor. You know something is wrong even if you don’t know what it is.”
She continued, “That in itself creates a lot of anxiety, so if we can answer the questions the child and the family have that helps us support them through the process.”
“They only have to tell their story one time,” Poulson said.
“Because of the accused’s right to face their accuser, it doesn’t eliminate the child from having to testify in court,” Steiner said, “but it helps bolster that child’s statement and will a lot of times initiate that plea process.”
Being able to see the child make their statement on the recording is pretty powerful, she said.
While many small communities don’t see the need for CACs in their cities, Steiner said one in 10 children will be sexually abused by the time they are 18.
“When I first started doing this kind of work, I would hear people say ‘It’s a great thing that you’re doing here, but do we really need this here?’ ” she said. “We absolutely do. We need it here as much as anywhere else.”
Poulson said it helps that Steiner grew up in Carroll County and graduated from Berryville.
“Having her back in Carroll County and having the opportunity to do this here in Berryville is really special,” she said.
“That was one of the most impactful things for me,” Steiner said. “When I first started here, it hit me that these are not only people we’re helping, which is great. I knew them. These are my people.”
She continued, “For me, it’s a huge passion. I want to make sure our small communities have all the resources that they need and that we’re not being shorted because we’re small.”
Poulson said April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
“You will see pinwheels all over in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month,” she said. “Down in Harrison, they have blue pinwheels out front, and each represents a true case in the county. We will set some up here as well.”
In honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month, she said Apr. 5 was “Wear Blue Day” to draw visibility to the issue. She said Gov. Asa Hutchinson will sign a proclamation Thursday, Apr. 11, recognizing the day as Child Abuse Prevention Day.
“This month is all about supporting local CACs,” Poulson said. “People often want to know how they can get involved. We have some fundraising events we need help with, and we’re always needing snacks, drinks and supplies for the center.”
She said people can also support Grandma’s House by attending the Goddess Gala on Wednesday, Apr. 10. The proceeds will benefit the Merlin Foundation, she said.
Poulson said Grandma’s House will also hold its annual Color Run on June 1 and is looking for sponsors. Any interested businesses can register online at GrandmasHouseCAC.com, she said.
There has to be an open investigation before Grandma’s House begins assisting families, Steiner said. She said the first step is calling the Child Abuse Hotline at 844-SAVE-A-CHILD or 1-800-482-5964.