It's a long walk for youngsters who have been physically or sexually abused to get to the small room at the end of the hallway at Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center where a forensic interviewer will ask them to tell what happened.

The 50 adult paces are easily doubled or tripled by the feet of a child as young as 3 being led to the room with pale blue and white walls and two facing gray chairs — one draped with a deep blue blanket printed with orange and white suns, moons and planets.

It's here that youngsters sit down with an impartial interviewer to describe who did what to them, while detectives, prosecutors, child protection workers and other professionals gathered in a monitoring room next door watch on closed-circuit television and feed questions through an earpiece worn by the interviewer. It was where, in February, an emaciated 15-year-old girl began telling how she was allegedly starved, tortured and confined to the basement of her family's Southeast Side home.

But before the youngsters reach the interview room, they make their way down that long hallway, greeted by vibrant, colorful murals. Chickens dance on cows' backs, and a dog and an orange tabby cat play checkers. Appleton artist Sarah Boge and her teenage daughter, Abbey Edmonds, painted the hallway.

"What they do is so important, and it's so hard on some of these kids," Boge said. "We thought that maybe, if it kind of took their minds off of why they were there ... it would be easier for them."

'The abuser is usually someone they know'

The "child-friendly" interviews can provide critical evidence for arresting and charging abusers and determine what support and services victims and their families need, said Safe Harbor Program Manager Jennifer Ginsburg, who conducts most of its interviews.

"For the child, the abuser is usually someone they know, trust, maybe even love," Ginsburg said. "They're often very conflicted. They don't hate the person. They just want the behavior to stop."

Last year, 202 children were interviewed at the Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center on Madison's East Side. Fifty-nine percent of them were girls.

Through June 1 of this year, 94 children were interviewed, the highest-profile of whom was the 15-year-old girl who was found walking outdoors in February in pajamas and bare feet near her Treichel Street home. The girl's father, Chad Chritton, 41, and stepmother, Melinda Drabek-Chritton, 42, are facing felony abuse charges, and her brother, Joshua Drabek, 18, is charged with child sexual assault and child abuse.

That case — as well as that of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky who was convicted last month of multiple sexual assaults of young boys — brought a spike in the number of child abuse reports locally, and in the number of children interviewed at Safe Harbor, Ginsburg said.

In addition to victims of physical or sexual abuse or neglect, Safe Harbor also interviews children who have witnessed domestic violence or are "drug-endangered" — youngsters whose parents' involvement with drugs is affecting their welfare.

The children interviewed are referred by police or child protection workers — usually both in unison, said Ginsburg, who has a master's degree in social work and has been working in the field of family violence for 20 years.

"It's a neutral, non-leading, fact-finding interview," she said. "Safe Harbor is a tool of the investigation. We're not on a fishing trip."

Under a new state law, the video can be used in court at a preliminary hearing, sparing a child victim from having to testify.

It can also provide powerful evidence in a trial, coupled with the child's testimony, particularly if there are time delays, or help avoid having to go to trial, said Maureen McGlynn Flanagan, a former state assistant attorney general who is president of the Safe Harbor board.

"If a year, year and a half has passed, you can see what (the child) looked like then," McGlynn Flanagan said.

Invaluable service

Police and prosecutors say the services Safe Harbor provides are vital on many levels.

A skilled interviewer can get all of the information needed by police, prosecutors and child protection workers without further traumatizing a youngster, who also doesn't have to be asked questions over and over again by different authorities, said Madison police spokesman Officer Howard Payne.

Perhaps most importantly, said Dane County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Fallon, Safe Harbor brings all those parties together to determine the best way to handle each case to achieve the best outcome for the child, and provides needed support services for victims and their families.

That's why, when Safe Harbor faced a funding crisis several months ago that threatened its existence, police, prosecutors and others who rely on it sprang into action and provided assistance that helped the nonprofit organization raise about $75,000, McGlynn Flanagan said.

Now, after cutting staff, including its executive director position, and contracting with Family Service Madison for billing and financial services and some executive management, the situation has stabilized, she said. Safe Harbor is continuing efforts to find a larger and stable organization to partner with on a permanent basis.

"We have some assurance of a very positive way of going forward," McGlynn Flanagan said.

Safe Harbor's current annual budget is between $420,000 and $450,000, down from about $500,000 last year, McGlynn Flanagan said. About half of that is "pass-through funds" — money Safe Harbor receives to provide services to the children and families it works with.

As difficult as it is for youngsters to talk about the abuse they suffered, Ginsburg said, "Kids say they feel much better."

And as difficult as the work can be for Ginsburg and others, she said, "It helps knowing that we're helping."

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