Creating a Sense of Calm

Foundation hosts child-friendly forensic interviews in Real County.

One day in March, a preteen arrived with her grandmother and mother at the H. E. Butt Foundation’s office for the Real County Community Initiative (RCCI) in Leakey. The three were dressed casually and seemed relaxed as the Foundation’s Lupe Salazar greeted them in the reception area of RCCI just off Highway 83. Because the preteen may have been the victim of child abuse, they were soon joined by a forensic interviewer, Deputy Steve Castro from the sheriff’s office, and a child advocate from the Bluebonnet Children’s Advocacy Center headquartered in Hondo, Texas.

When a kid bravely speaks up about being physically or sexually abused, she triggers a long legal process. An early step in this process is the forensic interview that captures the definitive story for police and lawyers and judges and protects the victim from the trauma of telling the story over and over again.

For kids in a big city, it’s pretty simple to get to their interview. But kids in a rural area like the Texas Hill Country may have to drive for hours. They miss entire days of school, sometimes more, and their parents lose hours of pay. The interview process becomes a chore that adds tension to a complex situation.

“Being able to remove obstacles...for a family to increase their well-being is what this work is all about.”

Dana Williams

Now, the Foundation’s Real County Community Initiative, established in 2018, is providing space in Leakey to help families, including victims of child abuse who shouldn’t have to travel distressing distances for an already distressing interview.

“It takes a broad community to support and protect our children,” said Dana Williams, community engagement director of RCCI for the H. E. Butt Foundation. “Providing space for [Bluebonnet] to help even one family makes our community a healthier place.”

Were it not for RCCI’s space and Bluebonnet’s mobile forensics unit, the family would have likely faced a long drive, perhaps several hours depending on where in Real County the family lives.

“The grandmother expressed how thankful she was for not having to drive all the way to Hondo or Uvalde for this interview,” said Dana. Instead of missing an entire day of school, the child missed a few hours. “Being able to remove obstacles such as a long-distance commute, lost classroom time, and lost wages in order for a family to have the opportunity to increase their well-being is what this work is all about.”

“The whole process probably took about an hour and a half,” said Lupe Salazar, Real County resource coordinator for the Foundation.

“The more calm everything is, the more healing the family can experience.”

Edward Gentry

In 2018 in Real County, 21 children under the age of 18 received family preservation support from Child Protective Services. This number may be a small portion of the 82,888 children who received the same support across Texas, but in Real County, 21 children represents 3.6% of the total child population.

Child Advocacy Centers work to make the justice process as healthy as possible for alleged victims. “If the interview has to be done, it has to be done,” said Edward Gentry, president of the Bluebonnet Children’s Advocacy Center in Hondo. “So how do we make it less traumatic?” Bluebonnet trains its interviewers to question children in a non-leading manner that is not traumatic for the children.

“The forensic interviews are done in a way to validate who they are,” Gentry said. Once the interviewer establishes the child’s developmental level, she asks questions to help confirm the child’s story with as many facts as possible.

Bluebonnet also provides child advocates who offer in-house counseling and assistance with legal paperwork like the crime victim’s compensation application. They also work to keep the environment child-friendly, providing games, books, and stuffed animals. After the interview, if a book or animal has comforted the child during the experience, they are welcome to take it home with them.

“The more calm everything is, the more healing the family can experience,” Gentry said. “No one knows what the outcome will be when law enforcement gets involved. So we do anything we can to create that sense of calm.”

The Real County Community Initiative (RCCI) seeks to cultivate wholeness in the communities of Real County by investing in local leadership development, catalyzing partnerships that promote health and well-being for children and families, and helping people navigate the complexities of rural life. RCCI has already partnered with eight organizations to benefit Real County:

Hill Country Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities (Hill Country MHDD)—Providing teleconferencing so patients have better access to mental health services.

Community Council of South Central Texas—Providing utility assistance and weatherization to help reduce poverty.

Southwest Family Life Centers—Providing services for victims and survivors of domestic violence.

Laity Lodge—Serving local church leaders with opportunities to attend retreats.

Texas A&M—Providing leadership training through the Texas Rural Leader program.

Real County Visionaries—Improving quality of life in the county through projects like a new park along the Nueces River.

Hill Country Alliance Leadership Training Workshop—Offering a one-day workshop to train leaders in local nonprofits.

Bluebonnet Children’s Advocacy—Providing forensic interviews for victims of child abuse in Real County.

Article by Marcus Goodyear.

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