When a child witnesses or is the victim of a crime their testimony is often necessary in order to find out the truth and press charges. But getting them to talk and participate in a very adult process can be difficult and they need to be protected. A Covington-based nonprofit works with law enforcement and parents to sort it all out.
Hope House looks like a house, and it feels like one too. Located on a quiet back street, its offices are inside of a renovated home, with a tidy yard and pinwheels leading up to the front door.
Executive Director Barbara Hebert says they don’t want the place to feel like a doctor’s office or an institution. Families and children should feel at home.
“They walk through our door and they walk into a living room, a living room that is filled with toys,” says Hebert. “The goal here is to help them feel more comfortable, for the children to feel like this is a place for them, because it is truly a place for them. So you see the teddy bears and the kitchen equipment and we have other toys, a television, sofas — it feels like a home.”
A home-like feeling is important to earn the trust of the kids they hope to help. Hope House works with the St. Tammany and Washington Parish sheriff’s departments, and the Department of Children and Family Services, by serving as the first stop for kids who have experienced trauma. They do forensic interviews for law enforcement and offer ongoing counseling for children and teenagers.
Forensic Interviewer JoBeth Rickels says she follows very strict interview guidelines, asking non-leading questions and carefully video-recording every session.
“In a best case scenario, having a child interviewed here is one of the first things that would happen in an investigation, and then the investigators would go from there to talk to different people, to look at the scenes of wherever the incidents happened and to do all of the investigation that needs to be done,” Rickels says.
That’s because the interviews must be done right — sensitively and with a sound understanding of child psychology. Hebert says that takes skill. “Typically it’s very hard for children to disclose abuse. Abuse typically comes from someone they know and love, it’s not the stranger at the park, typically, so they want to protect the people that they know and love.”
Counselor Earniesha Lott uses play therapy to help her clients tell her the truth. Her office and therapy room are in the back of the little white clapboard building. There are walls of toys and art supplies, bright colors and games.
But Lott says these toys are not just ordinary toys. “They are toys that are here for the purpose of play therapy," she says. "They are specifically selected to give children the outlet. Behind us we have an easel with the option to paint or draw, and this little table where we sit often when they first come in to talk about their week and what emotions they’ve been experiencing”
Lott says kids are nervous and worried about telling their secrets, but using toys makes the session feel less serious. For example, they might use baby dolls to act out nurturing or physical abuse.
She told the story of one young child she worked with who had extreme anxiety and PTSD and wouldn’t talk. Eventually the boy used dolls to act out what happened.
Lott explained, “He could not say it with his own words. He couldn’t come out and just say ‘Hey, this is what happened to me,’ but he used the toys as a mode of communication because it separated the child a little bit from the situation, but it also helped to release, and over time that child said ‘Yeah, this is what happened to me,’ and the child was still living with the abuser.”
With the help of law enforcement they were able to get the child out of that situation. She says now he is happy and doing well in school.
Rickels says people should be aware of signs of abuse by paying close attention to changes in children’s behavior.
“They need to know that it is very prevalent, it is something that is there, it is all over the world and they need to just watch and be aware of their child and know their child," she says. "If something starts being different, to ask questions and find out what’s going on.”
Hebert says one in ten children will be sexually abused before the age of 18.
“We know this is happening in our communities and it is bittersweet to be here to provide these services for the children,” says Hebert. “To watch the children come in, maybe scared and uncertain, and to leave here after the forensic interview and after counseling knowing that the weight has been lifted from their shoulders and that someone is listening to them.”
Hebert says last year the Hope House did forensic interviews with about 260 kids and counseling sessions with about 700. They continue outreach and training on how to prevent and report abuse.
Support for Northshore Focus comes from the Northshore Community Foundation.