AUGUSTA — A new regional effort aims to spare children who have been sexually abused the horror of reliving the encounter multiple times for questioning by police and counselors.

Under the Kennebec/Somerset Children’s Advocacy Center, a cooperative agreement between social service agencies and police, affected children and their families will now only have to tell their stories once.

“It’s going to make a great difference for the children,” said Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey. “It’s a great step.”

Massey was one of dozens of police and social services representatives to attend Monday’s signing ceremony at the Department of Public Safety office, to officially establish the Children’s Advocacy Center.

More than two years in the making, the cooperative is designed to minimize the fear and intimidation young victims of sexual abuse experience during the interviewing process, while streamlining support services for the children and their families. The cooperative is comprised of 20 agencies, including state and local law enforcement from throughout Kennebec and Somerset counties, and social service agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, Crisis and Counseling and the Family Violence Project.

A team of trained professionals have already conducted more than 120 such interviews involving criminal investigations in May 2012, when many of the agencies began cooperating in advance of Monday’s formal agreement, said Donna Strickler, executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Center.

“The whole goal (of the cooperative) is to allow for a streamlined, comprehensive evaluation of a child following the allegation of sexual abuse,” Strickler said. “Best practices have shown that a coordinated effort between crisis, law enforcement, child protective case workers and other professionals involved will lead to the minimization of the trauma and better case outcomes.”

Before the cooperative, children who made allegations of sexual abuse would be interviewed by police, often at a police station or at the hospital.

The same child would then retell the story as the investigation progressed, and for councilors and case workers.

Under the cooperative, children are only questioned once by a team of trained professionals, in a room specifically designed to be warm and welcoming.

Police, caseworkers and other professionals look on in private from another room during the interviews, which are recorded and given to police, so they can be referenced throughout the investigation.

Detective Sgt. Frank Hatch of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Unit said the process provides a clear narrative of what allegedly occurred and allows him to instantly begin his investigation while others quickly provide support for the child victim and the family.

With the cooperative, “we know the interview is going to be conducted in a forensically sound manner,” Hatch said.

Deputy Chief Charles Rumsey of the Waterville Police Department, one of stakeholders who helped organize the cooperative, said it’s too early to know how the process will benefit children in the long run, but his investigators have seen more immediate results.

“Their reports back have been very positive,” Rumsey said.

Therese Cahill-Low, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, said the videos produced during the interviews can be used as evidence in a courtroom. That way, children will not have to testify on the witness stand.

“Sometimes children will tell a story once and then recant,” Cahill-Low said. “It’s really traumatic for these kids to have to say it once. To say it three or four times is a lot of pressure on the kid.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642
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