Imagine the worst: you find out your child has been sexually abused or has witnessed physical abuse. Sadly, this isn’t such a rarity–it never has been–but now the community is talking about it, is aware of it and has a place where children can start to heal. River Bridge Regional Center helps with this heartbreaking process.
It is a child advocacy center dedicated to providing “hope and healing to neglected and abused children and their families through treatment, advocacy, and investigation services.” In the past, if children reported abuse, their questioning was often done in a police station; in an interrogation room where they may have felt like the criminal instead of the victim. Instead of warmth and hope, they may have been met with what felt like a cold reception, which then became another traumatic experience. And many times, they had to tell and re-tell their story, reliving the pain.
“We do everything possible to reduce the stress,” shares Meghan Hurley, LCSW, mental health therapist and Garfield County Department of Human Services. Back in the ’90s, it was recognized that there was a lack of communication with kids having to repeat their stories over and over again in a cold setting. Ten years ago River Bridge was founded to serve children and their families in Eagle, Pitkin, Rio Grande and Garfield counties.
One local family, dismayed and in despair about the abuse that wrecked their world, is grateful for River Bridge. The family ran into wall after wall but the center became a place of hope and healing. “River Bridge was the light. We need a River Bridge in our community,” says the strong mother and grandmother who rallied for her family. “We need to start talking about this. It’s happening in our communities. The statistics of a child being sexually abused are staggering. We need to be talking about it.”
Because the discussion is so overwhelming, River Bridge does everything to make the experience less stressful. To begin, it is welcoming and calming, with plush furnishings, stuffed animals, cheery murals and a trained staff to help make sure the reporting process, as harrowing as it is, goes as smoothly as it can.
Children’s advocacy centers offer services for kids and their families in a safe, secure environment. These centers are often the first responders and provide direct services in a crisis situation. A victim advocate greets the family at the door, already making the survivor feel safe and able to talk. Questions are asked in private; the forensic interviewer speaks one-on one with the child and then the family is able to meet with the mental health therapist.
“People are undergoing a really upsetting time in their lives, perhaps the most traumatic time ever. We do everything possible to reduce that stress,” Hurley says. “A big part of advocacy model is the multidisciplinary team—this effort amongst law enforcement, district attorneys, SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners) nurses, department of human services and mental health. My role is to make sure everybody who comes through has access to free counseling.” River Bridge is there every step of the way from the initial interview through the trial, if there is one, to help children have a voice, which helps them heal. Letting them have a voice, knowing that they have support is a huge step. Instead of being handed a card with a suggestion to contact a mental health provider, River Bridge assesses the situation and makes sure the children receive the help they need and not just a one-time session.
“One of biggest problems is avoidance, not wanting to talk about it,” Hurley says. The goal is for the child to be able to talk about it without shame – because no one gets better without talking about it. And there is one other asset that provides warmth, kindness, hope, anti-anxiety and the impetuous for counseling: Frasier.
“We do whatever we can to dial down the stress. Having a dog on site for most people is dialing down the stress. He is so well trained, he is like a rug,” laughs Hurley.
More importantly, cuddling with Frasier calms the children. His presence makes it easier for them to return to River Bridge to receive therapy and to keep them calm as they talk about the trauma so it loses the power over them.
Frasier isn’t a therapy dog, Hurley notes. He is a service-level dog who went through intensive training specific for facilities. By his very nature and training, he calms kids as they are under extraordinary levels of stress. He is trained not to react, so as kids discuss their horrific situation, he lies on the floor, the couch.
“He does nothing because he is trained to do nothing, he is communicating to the nervous system that there is nothing to be afraid of,” Hurley says. “It’s very calming to the child just to be in his presence.” Research agrees with Hurley’s assessment. Petting a dog can decrease stress hormones and releases oxytocin. Frasier is there for the first disclosure and keeps the child company during therapy and even through trial, if there is one. He calmly takes his place in court, near the child, promising kindness and a soothing, furry friend.
Frasier has been on staff for two years, and unfortunately the number of friends who need him are only increasing. More than 1,300 children have visited the center since it opened 10 years ago. River Bridge had its busiest quarter ever, with up to 10 forensic interviews a week. And Frasier is offered to each of those children–and most of them want their Frasier time. River Bridge Regional Center is a place of hope, a place to heal, and, thanks to a dedicated staff and one furry, calming friend, it’s a place where children don’t mind spending time.
“River Bridge is going to be part of our solution in our community,” says the grandmother emphatically.