By Doug Hill
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Child abuse is not a modern phenomena, but it’s one that has come out of the shadows of ignorance and denial in recent times.
Organized facilities for children’s advocacy such as Mary Abbott Children’s House in downtown Norman have been instrumental in that change.
“Working with a multi-disciplinary team as closely as we do is a really uplifting experience,” Executive Director Clint Williams said. “It’s a joy to watch all the professionals bring their areas of expertise to the table as we work on these cases.”
The team he refers to includes law enforcement, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, mental health care providers, medical professionals, family advocates and forensic interviewers. They’re the ones involved when suspected instances of child abuse come to light.
At the request of law enforcement or DHS Child Protective Services, the Mary Abbott House provides highly trained forensic interviewers to speak with possible victims or witnesses of abuse. This is accomplished in a child-friendly, non-judgmental manner.
Mary Abbott House also provides medical assessments and educational outreach about child abuse detection and prevention to the community.
“Some people have the misconception that the House is a residential center,” Williams said. “We’re very much a point-in-time service. The children are only here a couple of hours and then usually we never see them again. The work goes on long after the kids leave here, however.”
From the Mary Abbott House, case work associated with what’s learned from the children continues in other venues. Mental health counseling is common and readily available in Norman. Legal proceedings often are involved.
“One of the satisfactions of this job is when we get together once a month for our case staffing and hear about the children after they’ve left here,” he said. “And we hear about them continuing on that path of healing. It’s rewarding to know that counseling progress has been made, even though we don’t see it physically here at the House.”
Williams’ job at Mary Abbott House is to manage the staff of six, keep the operation on track to the board of directors’ plans and objectives, and serve as its public spokesperson.
The articulate Hobart native is a University of Oklahoma alumnus with a pair of undergraduate degrees. His continuing Mary Abbott House challenges are making sure the nonprofit organization continues to do what it was created for and to identify various sources of funding to sustain the mission.
The Mary Abbott House is named after Dr. Mary Abbott (1931-2004) a longtime area physician who was the first pediatrician in the Norman community willing to administer sexual abuse exams to child victims.
She also served as medical representative for the initial Cleveland County Multidisciplinary Team, helping guide them toward being child-friendly and away from inadvertently further traumatizing victims.
The neighboring Hiland Dairy owned the Victorian-style house that bears Abbott’s name and sold it to the organization for $1.
Forensic interviewing at the House is a key function with specific protocol. It takes a well-trained, sensitive individual with highly developed skills to be effective. Hearing information from children and being able to ask further questions in a way that is not leading or biased and allows them to respond in their own words is crucial.
“That’s a very delicate process that takes time to understand,” Williams said. “It works best when the interviewer is going in with a very open, inquisitive and investigative sensibility, which then facilitates the child’s story emerging naturally and organically.”
Typically, there is only one interview session with a child. Interview records on DVD are provided to law enforcement and DHS workers assigned to the case. They’re used as evidence in criminal proceedings in the same way that witness testimony or DNA might be in other cases.
Williams and his staff routinely learn of horrific criminal sexual abuse against children. Statistically, most of that illegal deviant behavior is perpetrated by individuals the children know — such as family friends, neighbors or acquaintances — as opposed to random strangers. Abuse occurs among all socio-economic, ethnic and religious groups. Homes with pre-existing domestic violence and substance abuse tend to also be where sexual abuse of children may occur.
The Mary Abbott House serves Cleveland, Garvin and McClain counties; sexual abuse is the most common case work. Child abuse doesn’t necessarily spike around holidays or other events, but there is a corollary for the reporting of it tied to the public school calendar.
“Sometimes we don’t have as many reports during the summer because many of the disclosures children make are to teachers,” Williams said. “I’d say that would be accurate looking at the past decade, but recently we haven’t seen a fall-off during the summer and winter breaks.”
It’s been observed that calls to child abuse hotlines often increase during periods when high-profile cases are widely reported in the media.
If anyone suspects child abuse, Mary Abbott House personnel encourage them to make it known in this way. The child abuse hotline number for this area is 1-800-522-3511, but if immediate danger is involved, call the police.
“When I talk about the House mission in the community, people’s response to me is often one of sympathy for how awful it must be to do our work,” Williams said. “Although we do see and hear things that nobody wants to see or hear, this work is not awful; it’s actually very inspiring and uplifting.”
When a child comes to the House, he or she is already out of the environment or situation where the abuse occurred. The child is then skillfully, patiently and thoughtfully interviewed. A medical assessment, not a physical examination, is conducted, which may result in referral to other medical professionals.
“We’re providing that first step on the path to healing,” Williams said.