On Wednesday afternoon, the Union County Prosecutor's Office held a ribbon cutting ceremony to open the county's new Child Advocacy Center on West Jersey Street in Elizabeth.
The $3 million facility will allow a multi-disciplinary team to tackle child abuse and sex crimes under one roof in order to bring the investigating time down from days to hours, while also providing a better more comforting experience for children and families.
Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow spoke about the former location that used to deal with child abuse and sex abuse cases. More than a decade ago when he first became prosecutor, the Westfield Avenue facility occasionally had insufficient heat in the winter and no sprinkler system.
Romankow said he realized that they should expand and reached out to architects, but ended up never using them. He then met with Assistant Prosecutor John Esmerado, on what the needs would be for a new center.
For six years, county officials searched for a location. Eventually, the current location - a former funeral home - became available. The overall plan to open a new center had been in the works for more than 10 years, officials said. Romankow called on a non-profit organization to approach the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders and present the idea to open an advocacy center at this location.
The prosecutor explained that grants , gifts and other properties being sold helped offset the cost of the center, which initially exceeded the $3 million that the county spent. In addition, the non-profit organization, Friends of the Child Advocacy Center, purchased the furniture and the cut glass art work in the lobby. The cost per tax payer in Union County for the facility, officials pointed out, is about 57 cents.
Upon entering the lobby of the Child Advocacy Center, located at the back of the building, a glass piece of art that represents children moving from dark to light greets you. At the top of the piece is a welcome spelled out in English, Spanish, Portugese, Creole and French.
The new location is a "wrap around" service model, officials explained, that brings together the multiple child abuse services that were formerly housed in separate locations.
The CAC is equipped with its own nursing suite, which will include an examination table and shower - the goal of this service being to eliminate a child's time in the hospital. Mental health staff from Trinitas Regional Medical Center will also have offices in the new facility.
Children from infants to age 17 will be also be interviewed in this facility, as well as family members and suspects involved in abuse cases.
The first floor of the CAC houses the nurse's room, therapists, several interview rooms, a monitoring room and a therapy room, as well as the waiting area.
According to Assistant Prosecutor Esmerado, by combining all of the services into one location the investigation time has been reduced from 2-3 days to 6-8 hours. The center officially opened last Tuesday and has already handled five cases.
Esmerado said they typically field about 500 cases a year, 260 of those being sexual abuse and extreme physical abuse. The rest are issues such as child neglect and non-extreme abuse.
In 1999, Esmerado was both married and assigned to this unit. When asked how the job affects him, he pointed out how he loves what he does but tries to work on no more than three cases a day to provide enough attention to each case. The best part of the job, he said, is seeing a child smile.
Esmerado recalled three of the children that were at the center during the past week. One of child loved the center so much he asked if he could sleepover, another asked if she could take home one of the toys - a Malibu Barbie dream home - when she left.
The third child brought Esmerado to the waiting area, pointing out that the tile around the fireplace reminded her of the dance floor at her parents wedding, and she began to teach Esmerado how to meringue.
According to Esmerado, the two most difficult types of cases are aggravated sexual assault and sexual abuse to multiple family members, the worst being any case that results in serious medical trauma such as paralysis or death. He noted at least one death a year results from shaking a child.
The second floor of the building houses the detective's suite and prosecutor's nook. Since most incidents happen in the middle of the night, staff is at the center 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year.
"Now we have an army," Esmerado said.
The process of handling cases is multidisciplinary, which Esmerado compared to "one stop shopping." The distinction is that the building is the Child Advocacy Center but ran under a multidisciplinary process.
The real catalyst, Esmerado added, is having the the Division of Child Protection and Permanency - Formerly DYFS - in the same building. The Division, as they call it, occupies the third floor of the CAC.
Also on the third floor is a view of the courthouse, which Esmerado said they had to be within one mile of, when choosing a location.
He added that they also wanted to be close to public transportation, stating 65 percent of cases come out of Elizabeth, 12 percent from Plainfield and the remaining from other Union County towns.
Some of the benefits of combining the facilities are that children only need to participate in one recorded interview, whereas in the past they would be interviewed several different times.
The center also houses a monitoring room so others involved in investigation and treatment can view the interviews from the cameras located in the rooms. Also provided is a separate entrance for suspects so that they never have to interact with the family.
Anatomically correct dolls line the monitoring room and are used during interviews for children to point out areas of sexual abuse, also all interviewers will ask only open ended questions to never imply anything to the children.
When parents ask, how do you prevent sexual abuse? Esmerado said, "Minimize the time someone is alone with the child."
He said that often times, betryal is the most difficult part for parents. In many of the cases, he said, the suspect is a live-in boyfriend or someone familiar to the victim.
"Early intervention is key," according to Esmerado. He said they now provide all children with mental health screenings, after seeing a rise in mental health issues in 2006. "Our role is to make the child feel more comfortable," Esmerado said.
During the ribbon cutting ceremony many of the legislators and prosecutors in attendance said the CAC has been recognized as one of the finest facilities in the United States. Only one other similar center exists, in Essex County.
To begin the ceremony, Charlotte DeFilippo, Executive Chair of the Union County Improvement Authority introduced the center as a 17-year-old dream realized.
One of the speakers at the event was advocate, Maritza Guillaume, who choked back tears as she spoke about her daughter who had been sexually abused repeatedly over a five-year period. Guillaume said counselors and law enforcement officials at the Child Advocacy Center give many children - such as her daughter - a voice.
Guillaume explained that on Jan. 18, 2008 at 4 a.m., when she learned her daughter was being abused, one of the staff members said to her, "Starting today you need to view your life with a new set of eyes, new information, understand them now, but you can gain clarity when you want to make a decision about how you want to proceed" This statement, she said, began her new life's journey.
As he spoke, Esmerado noted that the Child Advocacy Center is a living reality.
"We maintained the good fight and fought the good battle to protect children," he said.
Esmerado also pointed out that he is just one man of a 26-person team. All of the employees who work in the center wore yellow ribbons to represent light.
The final speaker was Union County Prosecutor Ted Romankow, who called discussed how dedicated Esmerado is to this project and to the children of Union County. For his work in making the center a reality, Romankow dedicated the waiting room of the CAC to Esmerado.