NJ Child Advocacy Center to Hold First National Summit on Child Abuse and Neglect

Erin Pedrini
Web Production Assistant

Wynona’s House logo. Photo courtesy of Wynona’s House Executive Assistant Cayla Belnavis.

The first and only co-located child advocacy center in New Jersey, Wynona’s House, is holding the first Child Advocacy National Summit on Child Abuse and Neglect to raise awareness about the issue.

Wynona’s House was founded in 1999 and is named after its founder, Sen. Wynona Lipman. “Lipman is a huge family and child advocate. She advocated very heavily for Wynona’s House in making sure that we had a co-located center, meaning that all of the different government agencies and their special victims units are housed at the center,” said Executive Director Evelyn Mejil.

Wynona’s House moved to its current location in Newark to have all of its partners on-site in 2007. Being a co-located center, Wynona’s House brings all of the disciplines that are needed to the center, including the fields of law enforcement, social work, psychology and medicine. Division of Child Protection and Permanency, Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and Metro-Regional Diagnostic and Treatment Center for Child Abuse and Neglect at Children’s Hospital of New Jersey all work with Wynona’s House.

Being co-located, Wynona’s House offers a special type of service for children and families. “Typically and traditionally a child will probably give a disclosure, then they would have to proceed to the police department and they would have to report it and talk about the child abuse again. Then they would have to go to a social worker and tell it again and then to the prosecutor’s office and do it all over again and here it is kind of like a one-stop-shop model. It is really good because the child only has to come and talk one time,” said Mejil. “You go through the forensic interview and all of the different disciplines are standing in one room and they are able to watch the interview so that child only has to report it one time. What that means is that you reduce the risk of re-traumatizing the child. Every time they have to tell the story, they have to relive the trauma again, traumatizing themselves. So saying it one time and having all of the different entities present, you are reducing the risk of a child being re-victimized and you are helping the child get on the way to healing.”

Mejil said that the children do not really understand what is happening to them. “These are kids that are caught up in an adult world. Here is this vicious crime against them and having to relive it over and over again by having to retell the events so many times is a crime in itself,” she said.

There is a multi-disciplinary staff — including law enforcement, Child Protective Services, prosecution, mental health, medicine and victim advocacy — that responds to the child abuse allegations that come into the center. The services the center offers to help children and families are forensic interviews, medical evaluation and treatment, mental health evaluation, therapeutic intervention, victim support and advocacy, case review, case tracking, community awareness programs and specialized training.

The vision of Wynona’s House is to create a community where children are safe, families are strong and victims become children again. Mejil said that the mission is “to provide the most child-friendly type of environment for the kids to feel comfortable and not feel threatened. They are surrounded by all of the different types of authorities to help them and it is a very non-intrusive and non-threatening type of way that the kids can be able to talk about their type of trauma to the best of their ability, getting them on the road to getting the type of help they need to heal and just be children again.”

Wynona’s House is decorated in a child-friendly way, with bright colored walls and paintings. Mejil said that police stations, for example, are not designed to be child-friendly and there are criminals in the building. That type of environment can be scary for children who have already experienced a trauma and that is why Wynona’s House tries to make the children as comfortable as possible.

“Even by providing a healthy and very nurturing environment for a child, the child will make a better witness and they will be able to disclose the story in a way that is helpful to the investigation and the prosecution can be more effective. It is so non-threatening and positive for the children here that the children like coming here and they like coming back. It becomes a source of support for the kids and their families feel comfortable. They associate us with the healing process and not the re-traumatizing of the event,” said Mejil.

Wynona’s House is located in Newark and services Essex County. The center will see children up to the age of 18 and children with disabilities or special needs can be seen up to the age of 21 depending on the special circumstances. Mejil said that Essex County is the number one reporting county in the state and averages 9,000 to 10,000 child abuse cases per year. By averaging that amount, Mejil said that the center is able to see the most severe cases and about 700 cases come through Wynona’s House each year. She said that the center would love to be able to help with more of the cases that are reported, but in order to do so, the group must continue to raise awareness of the services and how impactful they are.

The non-profit side of Wynona’s House oversees and coordinates all of the cases between the different agencies that it houses. The organization makes sure that the victims are getting the services that they need, providing ongoing case management and support. The non-profit holds support groups, has events, raises awareness and performs community outreach.

The non-profit is hosting the first Child Advocacy National Summit on Child Abuse and Neglect April 7 and 8. “What we are doing is bringing together all of the different disciplines together — the medical community, legal community, social service community, educators, service providers. We are bringing the entire community to raise awareness about child abuse and neglect and to tell the community about this model and to educate them about this epidemic and the impact the abuse has,” Mejil said.

Keynote speakers for the event include U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Acting First Assistant Prosecutor for Essex County and Honoree Robert Laurino and ACE Co-Principal Investigator Robert Anda, MD, MS. Other speakers will include Sen. Cory Booker, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Congressman Donald Payne Jr., National Children’s Alliance Executive Director Teresa Huizar, Newark Mayor Luis Quintana, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and Allison Blake, PHD, MSW.

DiVincenzo said, “As the only facility of its kind in New Jersey, Wynona’s House is a refuge for children who are victims of abuse and neglect. It’s a one-stop center that has positively impacted children during their most vulnerable time by connecting them with supportive services and law enforcement, and promoting prevention so that future injustices may be avoided. The National Summit on Child Abuse and Neglect is an opportunity to raise awareness about child abuse as well as shine the national spotlight on the positive contributions made by Wynona’s House.”

Mejil said, “You’re bringing the entire community, even legislators, in one room to say, ‘Let’s talk about child abuse and neglect, let’s raise awareness, let’s educate the public, let’s talk about what is being done.’ It is very interesting and exciting and we are just hoping that we can get the support of the community to attend and be there together with us,” said Mejil. “We are working with Invisible No More so the message is that no victim will be overlooked so our children will not be invisible any more. We just want to have a call to action to have the community be there and stand with us so that our children are protected. April is also our national child abuse prevention month. That is why we were so selective about doing April as it is a national collaboration of everybody raising awareness. We shouldn’t stick to just April, we should be doing this all year. We are hoping that the community responds.”

Mejil said that raising awareness is important because people don’t know how prevalent child abuse and neglect is and how often it is happening. She said that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused, and nationally, 6 million children are impacted by child abuse and neglect.

“It is a silent epidemic and people don’t understand just how severe these numbers are and severe these events are. You are talking about children that will eventually grow up to be adults and they are growing up and they are not receiving the treatment that they need to receive. They are not healing and so we are going to see the effects of child abuse and neglect all throughout our lifetime,” said Mejil. “It is happening more often than we think. I think that the issue is far more severe than what we could wrap our heads around. And we talk about an average of 6 million kids in our nation I think that is a pretty significant number that people really need to start looking into.”

Mejil said that children’s issues always take a bit of a back seat. She thinks that this is an issue that has to be on everybody’s agenda, saying that child abuse and neglect is a bipartisan issue that does not know any political affiliation, race, gender, color, ethnicity, special groups or special regions because child abuse and neglect is everywhere. It does not matter what class, educational background, profession or neighborhood that you live in, so it should bring the entire community together to working toward ending it, Mejil said.

Mejil said that the most rewarding part of working at Wynona’s House is helping the children grow up so that they won’t be defined by the trauma and will be able to heal and resume a normal life, grow up to be a healthy and fit and be able to pursue their dreams.

Most people do not know the signs to identify when a child is going through child abuse and neglect, to be able to report it, according to Mejil. That is why she says it is so important to raise awareness. “You cannot know when you are going to have an opportunity to save someone’s life and so I really think we need to start raising awareness about these issues,” said Mejil.

The summit is being held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and tickets for the full two-day summit are $225 and can be purchased online. Continuing Education Credits for legal, medical and social work programs can also be received by attending the summit and are included in the ticket price. There is also a Steel Magnolia Gala that will close out the summit. The summit schedule can also be found online.

Child Advocacy National Summit on Child Abuse and Neglect Banner. Photo courtesy of Wynona’s House Executive Assistant Cayla Belnavis.