Teddy bears are in place for the Kids Hub Child Advocacy Center's Teddy Gram program at the center in Hattiesburg, Miss., Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. The program allows people to donate to the organization by sponsoring a teddy bear. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

An organization that provides critical services to Mississippi children who have been physically and sexually abused had its federal funding slashed by half. Now, the Children’s Advocacy Centers in Mississippi are depending on state lawmakers to plug the hole.

The centers closed two satellite offices late last year and laid off around 40 staff members. As a result, the number of people providing needed services to more than 10,000 abused children each year has shrunk, and families and those involved in cases may have to travel farther for forensic interviews, counseling and other services. 

The majority of cases they see involve sexual abuse, but severe physical abuse that results in broken bones, serious burns and other major injuries have only increased during the pandemic.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn in September asked Gov. Tate Reeves to call a special session last fall to appropriate COVID-19 relief funding to the centers, along with domestic violence shelters and programs. Reeves did not call a special session to address the problem. But now advocates and prosecutors remain hopeful lawmakers will appropriate the needed money before the 2022 legislative session ends in early April.

If not, abused children could face longer wait times for services or not be able to access them at all. These are children like one 7-year-old boy who recently came to the Hattiesburg center for his forensic interview.

He had been sexually and physically abused for years. Finally, after a routine call to his home, a law enforcement officer noticed the child sitting in a corner with bruises and marks all over his body, said Didi Ellis, the executive director of Kids Hub Child Advocacy Center. He was taken into Child Protective Services custody and referred to the center.

When he was nearing the end of his forensic interview at the center, he was weary and tired.

“He told the interviewer she could ask him one more question, and that was all he had the capacity for … She chose to ask him, ‘If this ever happened again, who could you tell?'” recalled Ellis. “Without hesitation he said, ‘You, you guys. You’re my superheroes.'”

“He’s why — he’s why these dollars are so important. We want to be able to provide that same thing to every kid who needs us and in a timely manner.”

An interview room can be seen inside of the Kids Hub Child Advocacy Center in Hattiesburg, Miss., Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. The center is an accredited member of the National Children’s Alliance. The organization helps find effective solutions for child abuse victims and their non-offending caregivers. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Effects of the budget cuts

Karla Tye, the executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi, said the loss of funding has been “devastating for children.”

The cuts have also affected other victims’ services around the state: domestic violence and human trafficking programs and shelters, victim advocates in district attorneys’ offices, and a clinic that conducts forensic medical exams of children who’ve been abused, among others.

The Center for Violence Prevention in Pearl provides services and shelter to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. It lost $600,000 in funding, or about 30% of its total annual budget. Employees were laid off, and legal, mental health and medical services for victims had to be cut, according to the executive director.

The federal funding cuts came at the same time the number of referrals to the Children’s Advocacy Centers has drastically increased, according to Tye. State funding for the 12 centers — about $500,000 annually — has remained stagnant for the last 10 years, Tye said.

At Children’s Advocacy Centers around the state, specially trained forensic interviewers conduct interviews of kids who are suspected of being abused or have witnessed a violent crime. The interviews are done as soon as possible after an allegation is made.

The staffers are specially trained in interviewing children, child development and trauma, and their expertise is necessary in successfully putting an abuser in jail. 

During the interview, law enforcement and prosecutors look on through a one-way window, and the process is set up to ensure the child doesn’t have to tell his or her story more than is absolutely necessary. 

Before the centers started popping up in Mississippi in the 1990s, the criminal justice system was often “retraumatizing the children and ruining cases,” said Tye.

“The system was so disjointed … Kids were saying, ‘I don’t want to talk about this anymore,’ or felt like they were saying the wrong thing,” said Tye. “Cases were falling through the cracks and weren’t able to get prosecuted because agencies weren’t working together and sharing information.”

Law enforcement and prosecutors say their local center’s services, which include monthly meetings with every police officer, prosecutor, case worker, medical provider, advocate and anyone else involved in the case, help them do their job. 

“It makes for stronger cases … Our training only goes so far,” said Johnny Hall, an investigator with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department who has been with the department for 26 years. 

The meetings also ensure the various agencies are in sync — and, from Hall’s perspective, hold them accountable.

For a few months, Hall was able to use a satellite office near the sheriff’s department in Brookhaven. But after the cuts came down, it was closed. So he, fellow law enforcement and families now travel to the nearest center in McComb.

Sen. Jenifer Branning, a Republican who represents Leake, Neshoba and Winston counties, has filed one of the bills that would provide funding for the centers.

“Absolutely, we’ve got to do everything we can to support abused and neglected children,” she told Mississippi Today.  

A.J. Gannon, 13, daughter of a Kids Hub Child Advocacy Center employee, sanitizes the toys inside an interview room at the center in Hattiesburg, Miss., Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

How the centers are funded

Children’s Advocacy Centers are mostly funded by the federal Victims of Crime Act Fund, which was created in 1984 to provide federal support to state and local programs that help crime victims. The money is not from taxpayers but instead generated by fines paid by federal criminals in the court system.

In 2019, however, the fund began to shrink as a result of legal changes in the federal system. Congress passed a law aiming to shore up the fund last year, but there will be a several-year gap where money remains scarce before the fund is replenished. 

This has affected an array of programs that assist victims of crime — including the Children’s Safe Center at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which provides medical care to children who are suspected of being abused or neglected. 

Dr. Scott Benton, the state’s only child abuse pediatrician, says his operation has lost administrative positions and can’t hire a third physician as previously planned. 

“I can tell you we’re working our behinds off, and not seeing so much an increase in absolute numbers (of child abuse victims) but instead increases in the severity (of the injuries)” during the pandemic, Benton said. 

Tye echoed Benton: While the centers’ funding has been slashed in half, the cases being referred to the 12 centers since the end of 2019 have increased by 72%.

“The isolation (caused by the pandemic) created opportunities and circumstances that increased the likelihood of child abuse to occur. And the abuse was a lot more complex and severe,” said Tye, echoing Benton’s experiences the past few years. “We have seen some pretty horrific physical injuries.” 

Children are coming to the centers with more mental health needs as a result of prolonged and intensified abuse. 

“We have had more and more kids presenting with suicidal ideations,” said Tye.

Several lawmakers have filed bills to make up for this and next year’s loss in federal funding, in addition to increasing the amount of state funding the centers receive. But until they’re finalized in the appropriations process, the fate of resources for abused children remains uncertain.

The services of the centers

While forensic interviews are perhaps what the centers are most known for, they also provide a gamut of other services for children and their families. These include counseling, accompaniment to court, assistance in preparing for testifying, and help securing protection orders — all at no cost to the victims and their families.

“We are figuratively holding the hand of that family during what happens (in their case),” said Tye.

Crosby Parker, the district attorney for Hancock, Harrison and Stone counties, said the South Mississippi Canopy Children’s Solutions Child Advocacy Center in Gulfport makes a real difference in the cases he prosecutes.

“For the forensic interview of a child to be admissible in the prosecution of an offender, these interviews have to be done by a trained interviewer who’s designated as an expert in the field of child forensic interviews,” said Parker. “Over my 14 years, I’ve tried a lot of child molestation cases, and I would not be able to do it without them.”

And Parker doesn’t just rely on the center for prosecuting cases. As a father, he cannot help but see the victims he works with as kids first and foremost — kids just like his own.

“We are so thankful to have them as partners to make sure we can get the child and their family counseling services,” he said. “It allows us to be prosecutors because we know that child is being looked after.”  

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.