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When a child in Gallatin County has been the victim of sexual or severe physical abuse, a police interview room isn’t the best place to talk to that child about what they’ve experienced.

Bringing a child to a police department to sit down with a uniformed officer, especially when that child has already been subjected to traumatic experiences, “it’s really not the right way to go about the investigations,” said Andy Knight, captain of the detective division of the Bozeman Police Department.

“It can be difficult for children, when they’ve gone through some sexual abuse or severe physical abuse, to want to give their story,” he said.

Rather, having a comfortable environment with specially trained professionals conducting the interviews of children and helping the family with their needs following traumatic events is vital in cases of child abuse, Knight said.

That’s where the Gallatin County Child Advocacy Center comes in.

At its core, the Gallatin County Child Advocacy Center is a multidisciplinary team that works together to help child victims of sexual and severe physical abuse, interviewing the child, connecting the child to resources, assisting non-offending family members or caregivers with follow-up care and more.

And that is done at a center with a family-friendly environment, with rooms filled with toys, couches and other amenities, just like a home.

“I think it’s the best the community can do for a child,” said Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert, a member of the Child Advocacy Center team.

Gallatin County’s Child Advocacy Center got its start from the Sexual Assault Response Team, a multi-agency team formed in 2004 to review sexual assault cases.

From that came the multidisciplinary team formed to specifically tackle cases where children are victims of sexual or severe physical abuse.

That team, which meets monthly, is composed of members of the county’s law enforcement agencies (Bozeman, Belgrade, Manhattan, West Yellowstone and Montana State University police departments as well as the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office), the Montana Department of Health and Human Services Child and Family Services division, Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office, the Help Center and mental health professionals.

Organizational oversight of the center is provided by Bozeman’s Help Center, a 24-hour crisis hotline and referral service that has a number of programs.

The center is a place for forensic interviews, a structured conversation with child victims to elicit disclosures of what abuse they might have endured.

In addition, the group provides support and advocacy for the child and their family, trauma-focused therapy, both on-site or by referral, and off-site medical evaluations.

“The ultimate idea is to find healing for children,” Knight said.

In Montana, there are 25 child advocacy centers, including six that serve Native American tribes.

In 2016, there were 1,741 forensic interviews and 688 medical evaluations done through those centers across the state.

In that time period in Gallatin County, there were 66 forensic interviews done in 2016.

“There was a noticeable uptick in the number of interviews conducted in the last half of the year,” added Hannah Wahlert, program director of Gallatin County’s Child Advocacy Center.

Overall, Gallatin County’s Child Advocacy Center served 153 children and their loved ones, including family members, and friends. Of that, 65 children were primary victims of child sexual abuse, severe physical abuse or witnesses to violence.

In March 2015, the Child Advocacy Center got its own space, in the volunteer-renovated lower level of the Hearts and Homes building.

It was the perfect fit for the Child Advocacy Center, said director Christina Powell, because the center is able to share the space with Hearts and Homes, a family-centric program that provides space for supervised visits and programs for families with children in foster, kinship or dual custody care.

The center is warm and welcoming. There is a lobby with couches and a bucket of toys.

Just down the hall is a playroom with another couch, a small table with coloring books and supplies and giant stuffed animals.

The room where children meet with interviewers one-on-one also has comfortable furniture, light blue walls and a painting of a tree.

Children are interviewed by trained forensic interviewers. The Child Advocacy Center has a list of a dozen from the county’s law enforcement agencies as well as child protective services.

This room also has a smart board, provided to the center by the Bozeman Police Foundation, on which children draw things that include information investigators can use in their cases.

“This really was a wonderful tool to have,” said Hannah Wahlert, program director at the Child Advocacy Center, “allowing kids to show us their world. Kids love this. It makes them more comfortable and at ease.”

Adjacent to the interview room, which is equipped with multiple cameras on the ceiling, is an observation room. While the child is being interviewed one-on-one, others can sit in the room next door to watch via video. That includes the lead investigator on the child’s case, advocates, a nurse, or others, depending on the case.

The center also features a room adorned with multiple couches, toys and books that’s used as a counseling room or a waiting room for parents or loved ones of children who are being interviewed.

With this model, children aren’t subjected to multiple interviews, which could further traumatize kids, said Powell.

“These kids are being traumatized by the service provision itself,” Powell said.

Instead, when there’s a place professionals can provide a safe environment where the child’s needs are the first priority, and respond with a team effort with proven trauma-focused responses, “you have a better chance to mitigate the aftermath” of the abuse, Powell said.

“If we can do it right on the front end, we can make a difference,” Powell said. “This is a model of what interdisciplinary commitment can do.”

Since shortly after the Child Advocacy Center opened in 2015, the team has been working on getting national accreditation through the National Children’s Alliance, a professional membership organization, and by the end of this month it will be official.

“It’s a huge accomplishment for a community and an organization to achieve accreditation,” said Brenda George, executive director of the Children’s Alliance of Montana. “It’s a dedication to their community and their kids.”

Of the 25 child advocacy centers in Montana, seven have earned their national accreditation, with three more, including Gallatin County’s, set to get theirs this year.

George explained that the National Children’s Alliance sets 10 standards that centers have to meet to gain accreditation.

Those standards dictate protocols and standards centers must follow, ranging from how the members of the multidisciplinary teams share information, how forensic interviews are conducted, training requirements for professionals, and more.

It’s difficult to become accredited in Montana, George said, because a center might meet many of the standards but might not have access to mental health or medical providers, for example.

“It’s really a big deal when they become accredited in Montana because they have put all the pieces in place,” she said.

How long the accreditation process takes varies from community to community, depending on resources, George said. But it usually takes at least a year while some centers have been working toward their accreditation for the better part of a decade, she said.

Some of the advantages of the accreditation will be more access to training and data, as well as funding opportunities.

But officials agree that the biggest benefit is that it shows that the multidisciplinary team that runs the program can work together under a strict set of protocol meant to put the child’s needs as the top priority.

“It’s a tremendous advantage to all of us to have an agreed upon protocol so we’re handling these cases all the same. That’s going to be better service to the public,” Lambert said. “Those are difficult, stressful times. We don’t need to add to that with inconsistent approaches about what is going to happen next.”

“It defines your level of commitment,” Powell echoed. “We decided it was in the best interest of our county.”

And the accreditation is just another step in the overall goal of centers like these, officials said.

“It really is about the child. Are we doing the best thing for this child?” Knight said.

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Whitney Bermes can be reached at or 582-2648. Follow her on Twitter at @wabermes.

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