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When Bekah Neulinger was a young child disclosing that she had been sexually abused by a family member, she wishes there had been something like the Gallatin County Child Advocacy Center.

Instead, Neulinger was subjected to trips to a police station and multiple interviews with investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys and even took the stand to testify during her abuser’s trial.

“I cannot count how many times I had to relive the worst years of my life,” Neulinger said.

But now, kids in Gallatin County who are victims of sexual abuse, like Neulinger, or severe physical abuse have a safe and welcoming place to share their stories with investigators, to be connected to resources they need, and to help them on the way to healing.

The Gallatin County Child Advocacy Center opened in 2015, sharing space on the lower level of the Hearts and Homes building.

At the facility, child victims are interviewed once by a specially trained interviewers in a child-friendly and safe environment. And with recording technology, children only have to be interviewed once as to reduce re-traumatizing children by making them recount their abuse multiple times.

In addition to interviews, child victims and their non-offending family members are also connected to resources like counseling or medical help, and assisted with follow-up care.

The center, located in a home off of Babcock Street near Hyalite Elementary School, is run by a multidisciplinary team that includes members of the county’s law enforcement agencies (Bozeman, Belgrade, Manhattan, West Yellowstone and Montana State University police, as well as the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office), the Montana Department of Public 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.

Since shortly after opening in 2015, the team worked on receiving national accreditation through the National Children’s Alliance, a milestone they completed in February and was celebrated at Thursday’s event.

“This represents an important milestone in our community, to be able to provide a just service to our child victims of crime,” said Bozeman Police Chief Steve Crawford to a room of dozens of folks gathered at the Child Advocacy Center on Thursday.

Members of the multidisciplinary team praised the collaborative effort it took to bring an advocacy center to Gallatin County and the important roll it plays in the criminal justice system.

Det. Dan Mayland with the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office choked up recalling an interview with a victim he did just this week.

When families and children show up to the center, they are scared and anxious about what lies ahead, Mayland said.

But in this case?

“They left with a smile on their face because they knew this is a safe place,” Mayland said with tears in his eyes.

Sgt. Dustin Lensing with the Belgrade Police Department said the center has evolved into a well-structured and streamlined process for all involved and is “a benefit to our community and the children we serve.”

Thursday’s grand opening also served as a kickoff for Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Month.

The Help Center is hosting an education event at the Bozeman Public Library on Saturday and Sunday, where hundreds of blue pinwheels will be displayed in the grass in front of the library.

Children and their families are invited to stop by to make a pinwheel. Pinwheels will also be sold for a $10 donation to the Child Advocacy Center throughout the month.

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

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