Full-time staff at Chesterfield's Child Advocacy Center are (left to right) Lisa Johnston, Jenelle Beverly and Carolyn Kelley
There’s a rainbow-colored mat just outside the front door inscribed with the words “Everyone is welcome.” The lobby is painted sky blue, with a hot air balloon and fluffy white clouds suspended from the ceiling. One of the walls features a large, painted tree full of brightly colored leaves.
Even before you spy the waiting room full of books and toys, it’s clear: This is a child-friendly zone.
“Our facility is completely centered on meeting the needs of kids,” said Jenelle Beverly, director of Chesterfield’s Child Advocacy Center (CAC), which opened in January 2018 as a safe, secure place where physically or sexually abused children can meet privately with a specially trained forensic interviewer.
County officials concluded several years ago that a rising number of child abuse cases locally warranted the establishment of a dedicated center in Chesterfield.
One of only three government-run centers in Virginia, Chesterfield’s CAC already has conducted nearly 1,300 forensic interviews with children residing in the county, neighboring Richmond-area localities and even other parts of the state.
It had done 285 interviews through the first three quarters of fiscal year 2022, which doesn’t end until June 30.
To keep up with demand, its full-time staff has expanded to three: Beverly, forensic interviewer Lisa Johnston and family advocate Carolyn Kelley. A full-time clinician will be brought on in July, making it possible for children to also receive counseling at the center.
“The professional staff at the CAC passionately provides critical services to children that have been hurt in unimaginable ways,” said Dr. James Worsley, deputy county administrator for human services. “Chesterfield County is extremely fortunate to have the CAC as part of our local government. This further demonstrates our commitment to protecting and serving our most vulnerable populations.”
Chesterfield CAC staff are part of a multi-disciplinary team (MDT) comprised of representatives from the Chesterfield Police Department’s Special Victims Unit, Social Services, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, the Domestic and Sexual Violence Resource Center, the Victim-Witness Assistance Program, Mental Health Support Services and the forensic nursing program at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital.
They have similar MDTs with the city of Colonial Heights and Powhatan County, and also conduct forensic interviews as a courtesy to other localities – part of a state initiative to ensure all children in Virginia have access to a CAC within an hour of their home.
“We couldn’t do what we do without our partner agencies. It is very much a team approach,” Beverly said. “We meet every month and review all of the cases we saw the previous month. We also get together for training once every quarter. As separate agencies all tasked to work together in unison to provide wraparound services, that communication is absolutely paramount.”
CAC staff also helps “build bridges” for caregivers or family members who may have negative perceptions of law enforcement or the criminal justice system, Beverly noted.
“When families come here, they’re in crisis. The majority of the time, we’re the first touchpoint for somebody being introduced to Chesterfield County in a way that can really make an impression on you,” she added. “If a family feels like they’ve been treated with respect and dignity, and that we’re solely focused on their and their child’s best interests, that helps them be more amenable to engaging in the rest of the investigation – and if it results in charges being filed, the prosecution of the criminal case.”
The interview rooms at the CAC are equipped with technology that allows police, social workers and prosecutors to observe and record each of Johnston’s forensic interviews.
While it’s not a substitute for actual courtroom testimony, each forensic interview is considered evidence that can be utilized in a criminal prosecution.
“Even though it’s an investigative tool, I’m obviously not a police officer so I’m not going to talk to a child the same way they would talk to an adult,” Johnston said. “The way we’re trained to ask questions, it’s more of a child-led process. We follow the child, we don’t introduce things into the conversation. It’s developmentally appropriate depending on the child that’s in front of you.”
While Johnston is interviewing the child, Kelley and Beverly meet with the caregiver and try to determine what type of wraparound services are needed to support the family in its time of crisis.
There’s also a room stocked with toys and books to keep any other children in the family entertained for the duration of the interview.
“The CAC promotes healing for children and families. If we can also seek justice, we want to do that in the best way possible,” Beverly said.
On April 1, in recognition of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, Beverly traveled to Charlottesville to participate in a statewide event called “Community Chalkboard.”
Representatives from CACs across Virginia visited the city’s Downtown Mall and left handwritten messages on its Freedom of Speech Wall to raise awareness of the issue of child abuse.
Beverly’s inscription, on behalf of a client of the Chesterfield CAC, is particularly poignant:
“I felt heard for the first time in a long time,” it reads.