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story.lead_photo.caption Chris Moore of Bella Vista works Thursday at the Benton County Children’s Advocacy Center in Little Flock. The center is adding a 2,000-square-foot expansion based on need for services. - Photo by J.T. Wampler

LITTLE FLOCK -- Construction has started on a 2,000-square-foot expansion at the Children's Advocacy Center of Benton County.

The number of cases the center has seen this year is on the rise and the addition will help, said Natalie Tibbs, executive director. The center serves abused or neglected children by documenting evidence in legal cases and providing counseling and advocacy for affected families. The expansion will add more office space.

State hotline

Child maltreatment in Arkansas can be reported through the Division of Children and Family Services Crimes Against Children Hotline at 1-800-482-5964.

Source: Staff report

The addition will be named the Farrell Foundation Wing, in honor of its donation, Tibbs said. Grants and private foundations are the primary means of support for the nonprofit group, said Tibbs, who declined to provide a cost for the expansion.

A grant from Octagon, the event group that puts on the annual Walmart Northwest Arkansas Championship LPGA Tour event, will pay for paved trails around the facility. A basketball court and play area will be moved to allow more parking for the expansion. That project is also part of an Octagon grant. Tibbs expects construction to be complete this year.

Through mid-February last year the center handled 90 cases. There have been 140 cases this year during the same period. There were 790 total cases last year, the highest number of cases in a year for the center, which opened in 2000.

"At this rate we'll see 1,000 children this year," Tibbs said.

There were 729 cases opened in 2014, according to the center's annual report. More visits are a good thing because the problem of child abuse is being addressed, Tibbs said.

Child abuse can be ignored, partly because it is incomprehensible, advocates said.

"It's our worst nightmare but one we never think is possible," Tibbs said.

Parents, relatives or significant others of a parent were offenders in 69 percent of the child abuse cases processed at the center, according to the center's 2014 annual report.

The building is designed to allow for some privacy for families in waiting areas tucked around the building's perimeter. The design of the offices and the separate entrances for reporting and counseling are built with children in mind, said Stephanie Morris, co-director of the Melba Shewmaker Southern Region National Child Protection Training Center in Bentonville.

The expansion reflects years of work by volunteers and employees, said Hayes Minor, Rogers chief of police.

"Their awareness and prevention campaigns have bolstered confidence in children and families to report incidents of abuse and know that their complaints will be taken seriously and handled in a professional, dignified manner," Minor said.

Having a trained forensic interviewer helps with a case, but that isn't the only benefit, Minor said. The center gives children an environment where they feel safe, cared for and loved. It gives parents a place to talk to police outside a law enforcement setting.

Teachers, child care workers and health care workers are required by the state to report suspected child abuse. Those people can hesitate about making a report, Morris said. It's human nature to assume there is some kind of misunderstanding and nothing that horrible could have happened, Morris said. The reality is if a child describes an abusive situation the only benefit to them would be to make the abuse stop.

"They gain nothing by making up a story. In fact, they implode their entire little lives," Morris said.

Child abuse is found in all walks of life, she said.

"It's like cancer. It doesn't discriminate," Morris said.

The training center, housed at the Northwest Arkansas Community College, trained 5,864 people last year. About 4,600 of them were Arkansas parents, teachers, doctors, law enforcement officials and schoolchildren. Local training is part of what is driving the increase in cases at the advocacy center, Tibbs said.

"The more awareness you have, the more calls are going to come in," she said.

The increase in cases means there will be a long-term need for support of the families involved, Morris said. A court case is likely to take more than a year, Morris said.

There isn't any specific trigger to short-term increases in reported abuse, said Elizabeth Shackelford, executive director of the Children's Safety Center in Springdale. Children don't always report abuse immediately. The center in Springdale saw 552 children in 2014 and 546 in 2015, according to its annual reports. There were 498 forensic interviews in 2014 and 479 last year.

Parents, relatives, significant others and siblings made up 51 percent of the offenders in 2014 cases in Washington County, according to the center's 2014 annual report.

"No matter how many abuse cases are reported, we believe that there are still many more children who have yet to disclose," Shackelford said.

NW News on 02/21/2016

Print Headline: Caseload sees uptick as center works to end child abuse

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