Before moving to Charlotte to run Pat’s Place Child Advocacy Center in October 2015, Andrew Oliver worked in a similar facility in Lexington, Kentucky, where he and his staff once helped a 12-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by her uncle.
Despite having not seen the man for more than 15 months, the girl had one pressing concern that had weighed on her for more than a year.
“The first question she asked the physician was, ‘Am I pregnant?’” Oliver recalls. “It’s a physical impossibility, she hadn’t had any contact with that guy [in over a year], but kids don’t know what they don’t know.”
As the only child advocacy center in Mecklenburg County, where 17,323 children were reported abused or neglected in 2019, Pat’s Place offers myriad services — medical exams, therapy, help with prosecuting abusers — but education is perhaps the most important service they provide, according to Oliver.
That will be the focal point of Everyday Heroes, a three-month campaign the organization launched on April 1 in observance of National Child Abuse Prevention Month. The public awareness campaign will aim to educate parents and children about abuse through webinars on topics such as human trafficking and how to speak with children about body safety and sexual abuse.
For Oliver, it’s a chance to get the word out about Pat’s Place, which opened in 2005 and remains an enigma to many despite the office’s prominent location on East Boulevard in Dilworth.
“I have conversations with people every week and I tell them where I work and they say, ‘Oh I drive by that building once a day and I never knew what you did,’” Oliver says. “I think a lot of times people took pride in saying we were Charlotte’s best-kept secret. Well isn’t that a shame that people don’t know the important work that goes on behind these walls? We need the community standing up for kids and we want them aware of the work that we do.”
There’s perhaps been no more critical time for the work being done at Pat’s Place than now, following a year in which COVID-19 lockdowns put children at higher risk of abuse.
Each year Pat’s Place serves around 700 children who have experienced abuse in its most serious forms — child sex abuse cases, children who have experienced severe physical injury or life-threatening neglect, human trafficking, children who have witnessed serious domestic violence or homicide — and almost immediately after the pandemic began, the cases coming into Pat’s Place became more severe.
“We were seeing unprecedented rates of food insecurity and job insecurity and that elevates family stress,” Oliver says. “That makes life less safe for children in the community. [The cases we saw] were more severe, anecdotally, because kids were locked down and we lost our first line of defense in those people who were watching out for kids: teachers and counselors and coaches. They weren’t involved at the same level in kids’ lives.”
There was also another issue that couldn’t be confronted, as it existed in unknown places throughout the community: unreported child abuse cases. In March and April 2020, referrals for suspected abuse cases coming into Pat’s Place dropped by 40% as compared to the same timeframe in the previous year.
Throughout 2020, Pat’s Place saw a 26% overall reduction in referrals, all the while staff and volunteers remained painfully aware that a drop in referrals did not correspond with a decrease in actual incidents of abuse.
“We knew it wasn’t those cases that we were seeing but the ones that we weren’t,” Oliver says.
The number of referrals have ticked back up as schools and other businesses have begun to reopen, but they’re still not back to where they should be, Oliver says.
He sees hope in the new year, however, thanks in part to the opening of a new Survivor Resource Center (SRC) in February. The SRC is a precursor for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Family Justice Center, which has been in the works since 2017. The Family Justice Center, which will also be known as The Umbrella Center, will serve as a central location for people who have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault and child maltreatment.
The SRC is meant to begin streamlining the disjointed process these survivors have had to go through up to this point. Located inside the Children & Family Services Center in Uptown, the SRC includes on-site representatives from Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services, CMPD, Pat’s Place, and Safe Alliance. Off-site partners include Atrium Health Domestic Violence Healthcare Project, Charlotte-Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office, Mecklenburg County District Court, and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.
The Umbrella Center will be a larger-scale operation designed to enhance survivor safety and decrease violence throughout the Charlotte community. Projected to open in 2023, the center will offer a variety of walk-in services, including clinical assessment; individual and group therapy; medical exams and evidence collection/documentation; health-care services; and workshops and community outreach events.
For Oliver, plans for The Umbrella Center fit right into the mission at Pat’s Place, which was designed to consolidate the process for children who experience abuse. For example, the forensic interview that each child goes through upon referral to Pat’s Place is a legally defensible, developmentally sensitive interview conducted by a trained professional so as to save the child from having to repeat their story to a number of service professionals such as police, health-care providers, social workers, counselors or attorneys over time.
The Umbrella Center will build on that mission by expanding services for more members of a child’s family. Though Pat’s Place offers wrap-around services to parents in navigating their child’s abuse case, there are limits to what the organization can help with.
“We call ourselves a one-stop shop but we know that’s not necessarily true,” Oliver admits from his East Boulevard office. “Parents can’t enroll in economic support here and they can’t get WIC or housing referrals, and I can’t refer their parents for counseling if they themselves have been a victim of trauma. So this Family Justice Center is only going to elevate the work of these organizations and be an added resource for law enforcement and social workers and all of our community partners that are doing this incredible work at a time when our community says economic mobility and treating violence as a public health concern is a priority.”
As helpful as The Umbrella Center and an increase in referrals may be, National Child Abuse Prevention Month and the corresponding Everyday Heroes campaign are about preventing child abuse, not responding to it.
Oliver and his team will be using the next three months to build a dialogue with community members and push the organization’s five steps to ending child abuse: learn the signs and symptoms, speak to children, listen to children, report suspected cases, and support organizations that help children in crisis.
“The number one sign a child is being abused is they tell you that they’re being hurt or that they’re uncomfortable,” Oliver says. “That seems like a no-brainer, but we see it time and time again where kids have reported to a teacher or a coach or another mentor that something is happening at home and they are dismissed for whatever reason. Some people refuse to admit that this happens in their neighborhoods or in their schools … or they tell themselves they misunderstood the child.”
Statistics show that more than 90% of children who experience abuse know and trust their abuser, which can lead to other family dynamics and reasons for discomfort in the reporting process.
Standing in defiance of that discomfort is the crux of the “Hero Pledge,” which asks Pat’s Place supporters to do their part in helping end child abuse in the community. It has become the life’s work of Andrew Oliver, but as he points out, it’s on all of us.
“It is uncomfortable but it’s far more uncomfortable for kids who are living in those situations, and kids can’t be expected to protect themselves,” he says. “A child’s safety is an adult’s responsibility.”
The first Coffee and Conversations webinar to take place as part of the Everyday Heroes campaign is scheduled for April 7 and is titled Discover Pat’s Place: How Everyday Heroes (Like YOU) Can Help Stop Child Abuse.
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