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February 07, 2005

Victims of Child Abuse Receive Support

February 7, 2005 [The Intelligencer - Wheeling News-Register] By Lynn Davis

WHEELING - Young victims of physical or sexual abuse and their families have the support of Wheeling-based Harmony House, an advocacy center that works to reduce the trauma associated with child victimization. In turn, Harmony House seeks the support of the community it serves.

Commonly in cases of abuse, a child has to tell his story over and over to law enforcement officers, protective services workers, prosecutors and other lawyers. Director Leslie Vassilaros explained that Harmony House prevents this revictimization by conducting "forensic interviews" with the child.
"A forensic interview is a structured conversation with the child alleged to have been the victim of sexual abuse or extreme physical abuse," she said. "It is done in a legally sound, child-appropriate manner."

She meets with the child in a comfortable room at Harmony House's office at Ohio Valley Medical Center. The interviews are videotaped and transmitted via a closed circuit system to another room, where representatives of law enforcement, child protective services and the prosecuting attorney observe. This practice reduces the number of times the child will have to recount his or her story.

"The goal is to get information that substantiates or refutes the allegation of abuse," Vassilaros said. "Often, the information we gather can be used in court, but the overall purpose is to look at the well-being of the child."

She said Harmony House is an unbiased "neutral" participant in the proceedings, trying only to get to the truth of the allegations. After interviewing a child, she can determine whether the child needs other medical or psychological assistance and make appropriate referrals. The center provides specialized case tracking, to ensure that no child "falls through the cracks" of the process, as well as a number of community and professional education programs.

The facility also features a child-friendly waiting room, where other family members can enjoy games and toys while waiting for an interview to be completed.

Vassilaros said child victimization is not uncommon. In Ohio County each year, there are 300-400 referrals to Child Protective Services. That agency, in turn, involves law enforcement and Harmony House in appropriate cases. In just over a year of operation, Vassilaros said, Harmony House has served 127 children and 91 adults. Three criminal convictions have resulted and several more are pending.

She explained that the non-offending family members also may be considered victims of the abuser. Not all abusers are family members, she added, having dealt with cases where older children assaulted younger ones.

Harmony House is "funded through a lot of prayers," Vassilaros laughed, explaining that it has received some federal and private grants, but that the U.S. Congress recently cut the appropriation to some of the programs that have provided funding in the past. "We don't know what effect that will have on us. We need our community to step up and see what we're doing here."

She credited the Chambers Foundation, the Junior League, the Sands Trust Fund, area churches and local donors for helping Harmony House get established. "OVMC has been a godsend, providing this space for free," she said. Other community partners include the Badd Bonz Customz motorcycle shop, Ohio University Eastern and Belmont Technical College, which has provided child development interns.

"Our funding was shaky because we were new and we don't charge for our services. Now with some of the funding cut by the Congress, we're looking for people to help. We know our services are working, and we don't want to lose what we've achieved so far for the sake of the children."

Badd Bonz will sponsor a bike run this spring to help raise funds, and OUE students have helped with fund-raising and with parties for the children served by the agency.

"We have the space and the equipment we need, and we're doing the service. We just need operating funds to continue. We have to speak for the children," Vassilaros said.

Posted by Nancy at February 7, 2005 12:20 AM