Most days are routine for Nashua Police Lt. Mike Moushegian. Crime happens, and his job is to solve those crimes.
However, there are those days when a particular crime comes to light that is beyond his ability to solve. Even if he can put the perpetrator behind bars, it's impossible to undo the damage done to child victims of sexual abuse.
"The [allegations of sexual abuse of children by coaches] at Penn State and Syracuse University have drawn public attention to something most police officers know exists in every community. You don't have to go to Pennsylvania or New York, or anywhere else, to find monsters; there are monsters in our neighborhoods, our schools, our churches," said Moushegian.
"You don't have to fear the creepy guy in the park. Sadly, in a majority of cases, the abuser is someone the child knows and trusts – often even a parent," Moushegian said.
Since 2004, the delicate task of untangling the details in cases of sexual abuse involving children has been relegated to the capable hands of forensic interviewers at Granite State Children's Alliance, until recently known as the NH Network of Child Advocacy Centers.
Last year 2,000 children were seen at a New Hampshire center – 600 of those in its two Hillsborough County offices, in Manchester and Nashua. That's an average of two victims per day, six days a week, Moushegian said. Statistically, 1-in-4 girls and 1-in-6 boys will become a victim of sexual assault before their 18th birthday.
Only 1 in 10 of those children will come forward; 95 percent of the time, the abuser is known to the child.
The good news is that, on a national scale, New Hampshire's model for handling young victims of sexual abuse is a "shining star," said Kristie Palestino, director of the Nashua center.
Palestino said New Hampshire's network of 10 child advocacy centers grew out of an idea first put forth in 1985 by Alabama Congressman Bud Cramer, who believed the way child victims of sexual abuse were being handled simply added to the trauma they'd already experienced.
"Children were being interviewed multiple times, maybe first by a school counselor, then by a school nurse, then by police, and then DCYF, then a prosecutor, and then a victim advocate – maybe up to eight interviews for one disclosure," Palestino said.
In contrast, a child who is a suspected victim of sexual abuse today will be brought into a child-friendly center by a parent or guardian, and after settling in, will sit with a forensic interviewer who is specially trained in the fine art of fact gathering from children ranging in age from 3 to 17.
An unobtrusive camera records the interview, and a team of experts from various local, county and state agencies observe via closed circuit TV. Specific questions are fed directly to the interviewer, who uses a small ear piece. The entire interview is conducted, one on one, in an atmosphere of comfort and trust.
The state's 10 advocacy centers were planted beginning in 2004 with $1.5 million in seed money from the state, a decreasing revenue stream that is now capped at $20,000 per center; they continue their work today as independent non-profits, and are sustained primarily through donations.
So as desginated funding from state and local municipalities continues to shrink, keeping the centers going becomes a matter of getting the word out about their mission, and maintaining a steady donor stream.
"Some of the 10 centers have done well. Some have struggled, and so recently we merged the Hillsborough, Cheshire and Belknap county centers," said Palestino.
Moushegian considers the advocacy center in Nashua an "essential service" for police, and points out that other agencies are equally reliant on the centers whenever a child is identified as a possible victim of abuse.
Some funding for the centers comes from local municipalities, as an integral part of detective work. But county attorney's offices and Youth Services also look to the advocacy centers, not only in gathering important facts from young victims, but in gathering information needed to prosecute the perpetrators.
Nationally, communities with a child advocacy center in place see a 40 percent increase in prosecution rates, said Palestino.
"Although we don't have hard statistics in place for New Hampshire, anecdotally we fit that profile," Palestino said. "We're not just a fancy interview room. We make sure every child gets the support he or she needs, including medical support. And almost every child leaves happy," Palestino said.
As a testament to that, Palestino points to the colorful collage of handprints covering the walls of the space just outside the interview room. Hands of Hope, as it's called, is a way for every child to leave some part of the experience behind.
"They dip their hands in paint and press them on the wall. In fact, we have so many now that we have to paint over some of them, to make room for more. But it's a tangible way of showing them that they aren't alone," Palestino said. "Every child leaves with a brand new teddy bear, given to them for their bravery. And almost every child leaves here happy, skipping, smiling – how great is that?"
After 20 years in law enforcement, Moushegian said he is totally vested in the mission of the child advocacy center, not just as a police officer, but as a member of the community.
"A lot of people assume the government is equipped to handle all kinds of investigations, including child sexual abuse. But the reality is we rely on our close partnership with the child advocacy center, which makes it a seamless process," Moushegian said.
"In Nashua we have a certain protocol in place whenever a case like this comes in. The reality is, we don't want to talk to a child at the police station, unless we have to. The center creates a safe, neutral environment," Moushegian said. "It's the best place for a child who's suffered that kind of trauma."
Click here for more information on Granite State Children's Alliance. Monetary donations are tax deductible and always welcome. Also appreciated: Donations of new teddy bears.
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