Home Features The Who, What, and Why Behind SafePath Children’s Advocacy Center

The Who, What, and Why Behind SafePath Children’s Advocacy Center

Pictured L-R from the top: Claire Kirkland, LCSW, Director of Intervention Services; SafePath CEO Jinger Robins; Pam Martin, Director of Finance; Tiffany Webb, Director of Services; and Gail Garland, Director of Advocacy. The girl is not a client.
Pictured L-R from the top: Claire Kirkland, LCSW, Director of Intervention Services; SafePath CEO Jinger Robins; Pam Martin, Director of Finance; Tiffany Webb, Director of Services; and Gail Garland, Director of Advocacy. The girl is not a client.

Creating child-focused services to support Cobb’s most vulnerable population

By Lindsay Field Penticuff

It’s some of the most grueling yet rewarding work imaginable — helping children who have been sexually abused, neglected, or trafficked. But the team at SafePath Children’s Advocacy Center in Marietta is up for the challenge and has yet to back down after more than 29 years of serving Cobb County and the surrounding areas.

Every step of the way, a child supported by SafePath is served by a team of individuals who have been specially trained to work with children. Their techniques, from simply welcoming them into the center to how they ask questions during forensic interviews, medical exams, and what clinical services they provide, are child focused.

Law enforcement handles the investigation of the case, doing everything from gathering evidence (including photos) on the scene to interviewing the alleged offender. “But here at SafePath,” says Jinger Robins, SafePath CEO, “we are focused on the children — the alleged victims.”

The Who
Children’s advocacy centers help ensure children who are alleged victims of abuse have a safe, child-focused, professional approach where they can tell their story to a trained interviewer who knows the right, evidence-based questions to ask in a way that does not retraumatize the child.

SafePath is accredited by the National Children’s Alliance (NCA), meeting their National Standards of Accreditation which is comprised of 10 individual standards and represents more than 130 child abuse intervention professionals and experts working from the latest research.

To date, there is a network of 961 children’s advocacy centers across the country in which the NCA provides support, advocacy, quality assurance, and national leadership. Approximately 1.5 million people trained in child abuse intervention and prevention by the NCA served an estimated 380,494 children in advocacy centers like SafePath last year.

The SafePath Children’s Advocacy Center team outside their Marietta headquarters. The girl is not a client.
The SafePath Children’s Advocacy Center team outside their Marietta headquarters. The girl is not a client.

In the State of Georgia, the accrediting organization is Children’s Advocacy Centers of Georgia (CACGA), which believes that access to strong, local children’s advocacy centers will provide child victims and their nonoffending family members with the unique services they need to begin their journey toward hope, justice, and healing. There are 49 centers throughout Georgia in the CACGA network that adhere to 11 standards. SafePath is also fully accredited by CACGA and meets all the standards established by the statewide organization.

The What
Recognized as one of the top five children’s advocacy centers in the country by the NCA, SafePath’s mission is to reduce the trauma to children and their families by offering a comprehensive, professional, and child-friendly approach to the allegations of child abuse. They do this by ensuring a less traumatic, professional, and child-focused approach to child abuse cases by bringing together professionals from law enforcement, the Cobb District Attorney’s office, therapists, interviewers, healthcare professions, the Cobb Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and other agencies — to work together as a collaborative team.

Claire Kirkland, LCSW, Director of Intervention Services at SafePath, works with unincorporated Cobb County’s police department, the surrounding six city police departments, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security, and DFCS to schedule appointments and conduct forensic interviews with children once identified by the investigative agencies (law enforcement and/or DFCS).

“Either DFCS, law enforcement or both will call SafePath and say they have a case and we need to schedule an interview,” Kirkland says. “If it’s law enforcement, for example, I always help make sure DFCS is involved, and vice versa, because we want as many partners here as possible who are working the case during an interview. My job is to link those agencies and make sure they are here together working collaboratively and coordinating necessary services.”

Kirkland also works with the SafePath team to determine who will be the most appropriate professional to interview the child. They have Spanish-speaking male and female interviewers, and some who have specific training in interviewing children who are victims of trafficking or trauma.

There are six interview rooms at SafePath. Three are designed to suit children ages 10 and younger (they include child-sized tables and chairs) and three interview rooms are designed to suit children older than 10 (they include a couch, chair, and table). All rooms also include easels, which may help the interviewer and child illustrate anything during an interview.

“Everything we are trained in is evidence-based,” Kirkland says. “The field of child maltreatment is constantly conducting research to make sure we are asking questions the best way we can and that the information we are collecting is appropriate for this. We are honest and open with the children we interview. We explain that there are cameras in the room and that we are recording the interview so that everything is exactly how they say it and that there is a copy of it.

“We also explain that partners from law enforcement are observing the interview and they will assist us if we need help. We want a child to know we are genuine and transparent. We build a lot of rapport with the child. We want to learn about the child. It’s not just a case. We ask them about what they like to do, their favorite thing at school; get them comfortable and understand how they communicate, then that’s when we start asking evidence-based questions.”

Kirkland’s team wants to make sure all the information they are gathering is coming out in a child’s own words. “We learn about their family dynamics and eventually transition into what’s going on and why they are here, and that’s when we get into the allegations,” she says. “We are sensitive to how we are asking questions and how the child is feeling at that point. We check in a lot, asking how they are doing.”

There are several evidence-based protocols utilized when conducting forensic interviews involving alleged child victims of abuse. SafePath ensures they are following those protocols.

From the moment a child enters SafePath, they are greeted by a friendly and comforting face.

“When a child comes in with the caregiver, our navigator at the front desk will greet them and they will call the advocate up front as soon as possible so that we can be the person who is helping them make sure they know things like where the bathroom is and whether they need a snack,” says Gail Garland, Director of Advocacy at SafePath. “The advocate’s role during the whole appointment is to help make sure the child is OK, as well as checking in with the caregiver. We will also meet individually with the caregiver to help them fill out paperwork and talk them through how the appointment is going to go.

Chelsea Johnson, LPC, SafePath Therapist. The girl is not a client.
Chelsea Johnson, LPC, SafePath Therapist. The girl is not a client.

“We want the caregiver to understand that someone is going to talk to the child, what the room setup is like, that a detective and DFCS will meet with them to let them know next steps, et cetera. We will answer as many questions as we can. Many of the caregivers who bring their children here may have been victims of abuse as children themselves, so this can be very triggering for some of them and this is the last place they ever thought they’d be. There is a lot of emotion working with the caregiver.”

Tiffany Webb, Director of Services at SafePath, and Garland and Kirkland’s supervisor, adds that advocates are taking care of people who are coming to SafePath, oftentimes, on the worst day of their lives and trying to help get them to a place where they can tell their story so they can get help.

“And sometimes a caregiver can’t be there with a child, so advocates are filling in to be that person who can sit there with this child who may have no idea what’s happening and provide them support,” says Webb.

During the appointment, Garland and her team may also learn that the alleged abuser may be the only person employed in the home, or they may be the only one who drives. “If that’s the case and the abuser is then arrested and no longer in the home after the case is brought to us, the caregiver will now be responsible for getting a child to and from appointments without a means of transportation, for example, or need a way to help cover living expenses,” Garland says.

And SafePath is very intentional in helping families. They will work with partner organizations throughout the community to help serve the families in whatever ways they can. “Advocates not only guide them through their time here at the center but throughout the entire process,” Garland says.

In addition to forensic interviews and advocacy, SafePath provides clinical care to children and their families, anything from trauma-focused and family therapy to medical evaluations and crisis intervention — and all on-site.

Having the clinical staff at the center is incredibly beneficial, Webb says, because it’s oftentimes hard to find clinical professionals in the community who want to take on these types of cases. “You’re asking for someone who will see children, which is hard when you’re talking about trauma, sexual abuse; and dealing with a court case with charges,” she says. “A professional in private practice doesn’t have to take on a case that we know will be a lot of long-term work and involve a lot of information about how the court system works, specifically about trauma and sexual abuse. SafePath has a team on-site and that is all we do. We know how hard it’s going to be for those children to find services outside of here.”

And all of SafePath’s services are free of charge to the children they serve.

“We do evidence-based treatment, primarily trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. We also have play therapy components for our younger children and we are trained to help the family from that point going forward, usually all the way up until if the case goes to trial and beyond.”

And when a case does go to trial, SafePath has the services of Charles “Chuck” P. Boring, an Attorney with Robbins, Alloy, Belifante, Littlefield LLC, as well as a former, longtime prosecutor in Cobb.

“Anytime they have an issue, be it a civil or criminal matter, and SafePath’s staff is getting subpoenaed for records, it gets sent to me,” Boring says. “A lot of times, [defense attorneys] are asking for information that is protected by statute. …I’ll file motions to quash those subpoenas.”

Boring also helps make sure SafePath is better prepared to protect a child’s integrity and the statements they make by offering professional services before a trial, as well as training to help law enforcement, district attorney’s office staff, and interviewers get a better understanding of what it’s like in a courtroom.

“Justice for a child can happen when you have a confident, well-educated, and well-trained system where an alleged offender, if found guilty, can then go through the justice system for prosecution and be removed from our community so that our community knows it is safer,” Robins says. “The children themselves know they are safer when their abuser is removed from the community.”

The Why
Robins says the “why” behind her commitment to SafePath and advocating for children was realized at a young age.

“After serving as a staff psychologist in Des Moines, Iowa, and moving to Georgia, the shift to systemic change with how children are served when considered alleged victims was a professional game changer for me,” she says. “The old system was organization-focused, and the new system created by children’s advocacy centers is child-focused, ensuring collaboration and coordination across systems.”

Then and now: SafePath’s leadership with the childhood photos that hang in their offices.
Then and now: SafePath’s leadership with the childhood photos that hang in their offices.

Robins understands that children who may be trapped in a situation and don’t feel safe need a community — a system — that can help them out. “It becomes the responsibility of the community to say something if they see something, and to those children who do say something themselves, they are brought into a safe, child-focused, yet very professional system, to gather what, if anything, did happen to them and walk them through that and come out on the other side safer, better protected and much more able to live a childhood that every child deserves.”

This mission, reducing the trauma for children, is what has driven Robins and her team for nearly 29 years to serve children in Cobb County. “We are all about protecting and serving the youngest and most vulnerable citizens of Cobb County — the children,” says Garland.

And Kirkland, a Cobb native, agrees. “We are serving the community here, and that’s important to me. We are invested in the work and the people we serve here,” she adds.

“Cobb County is committed to protecting children, or we wouldn’t have SafePath. And as cliche as it may sound, the children are our future. They deserve the protection of the system, especially when they are brave enough to disclose abuse,” Robins concludes.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month
Mark your calendars for Wear Blue Day on Friday, April 5. Digital Advocacy Day is Tuesday, April 16.

2024 Support SafePath Events
Georgia Food + Wine Festival
Charity Partner
March 22-26

2024 AtkinsRealis Golf Classic benefiting SafePath
April 17
Cobblestone Golf Course

Hearing Children’s Voices Gala
Aug. 10 (tentative date)
Learn more: safepath.org

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