Suffer the little children

It was a grim summer for the folks at Gulf Coast Kid’s House.

The Kid’s House is a one-stop center where child abuse victims and their families can get the services they need under one roof. Law enforcement, the state attorney’s office, medical personnel, counselors and advocates are all at the house.

That means a child only has to tell his or her story once, where it is recorded, and the family can get help navigating the system they are about to enter.

In July, 50 to 60 medical exams were done at the house, says executive director Stacey Kostevicki.

“We were doing two exams a day,” in what is usually the slow time of year because school is out and many of their reports of suspected child abuse come from school officials.

“We never slowed down this summer.”

Through July of this year, 1,373 children were served at the house in Pensacola.

That is not a good omen for the rest of the year. In 2012, the Kid’s House saw 2,300 children, a 15 percent increase from 2011. In fact Escambia County has the 10th highest incidence of child abuse reported in the state of Florida.

Kostevicki says the atmosphere around reporting physical and sexual abuse of children has come a long way since the house opened in 2004.

“But there is still inconsistent response,” Kostevicki says. “We still get phone calls from hospital emergency rooms where they don’t know what to do next” when they see a child they suspect is being abused. "That should be part of their training."

Another challenge is that these cases don’t neatly fit into the system.

Take the case of Steven Grady Fillingim, a Molino man arrested by Escambia Sheriff’s deputies in September in connection with whipping a child for 40 minutes, at times to the rhythm of the Robin Thicke song “Blurred Lines,” because he said she was lazy for not vacuuming the carpet.

That child, Kostevicki says, came into the system from law enforcement through the Sheriff’s Office, but she won’t be offered advocacy services until it gets to court proceedings. The Sheriff’s Office, because of staffing and budget constraints, has one advocate who works with all of the special victims, from adult rape victims to child abuse victims, she says.

“There is no way they can help all the people who need help,” Kostevicki says.

The story shared at the House’s annual fundraising luncheon by a grandmother of two young girls who are survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of their biological father also highlighted how porous the system can be.

Grandma began to suspect when she saw the telltale signs of abuse in her young granddaughters, then 18-months and 2-years-old: Regressing in potty training, nightmares, dancing by the girls in provocative and age-inappropriate fashion, then the youngest began self-harming, by biting her own arms until she would leave bruises and draw blood.

She saw verbal abuse by her then son-in-law, frequent bouts of controlling behavior. When the couple filed for divorce, the biological father was allowed shared custody.

Finally the oldest girl told the Department of Children and Families that her biological father was molesting her. And her sister.

It was then that the family was directed to Kid’s House, where mom, grandma and the girls all got group and individual counseling.

But as the case wound its way through civil and dependency court, the girls’ credibility was challenged. And grandma still had to drive the girls to overnight visits with their father.

“I didn’t sleep on the weekends (wondering) what was he doing to them?” she says.

Finally the oldest swore out a detailed complaint to the appropriate authorities and a protective order was issued. Criminal charges have yet to be brought against the biological father.

Now the girls, ages 5 and 4, are growing and thriving. “They love school. They are learning. They are expressing their opinions and emotions.”

The road is not yet clear. Grandma says she and her daughter have learned about “triggers” -- sights, sounds, even days of the week -- that can call to mind the abuse for the victim.

One of the girls, Grandma says they notice recently, has behavior problems on Wednesdays. Turns out a teacher that she sees on Wednesdays has facial hair like her biological father. Seeing the man’s beard was triggering the memory of abuse for the little girl.

But they are learning to cope. And that is a crucial step on their journey to recovery.

In this case, Kostevicki says, the system nearly failed a couple of times. If Kid’s House hadn’t been there coordinating information, the case would not have gone through to fruition.

If you suspect a child is being abused, you can call the hotline at (800) 96ABUSE.

If you or your civic or professional group wants training in how to spot and react responsibly to suspected child sexual abuse, call the Kid’s House at 595-5800.



Gulf Coast Kid’s House data from January to July 2013

Total children served: 1373.

New investigations of child sexual abuse, severe physical abuse, or neglect initiated by the seven Department of Children and Families investigators located within Kid's House: 736.

Child victims identified in Kid's House based Department of Children and Families reports:  778.

Children assessed by the Child Protection Team based at Kid's House: 343.

Medical exams provided: 285.

Source: Gulf Coast Kid's House.