“When you can look a kid in the eyes and say, ‘I believe you,’ that is the beginning of the healing process,” proffers Andi Craven, program director for Hendersonville’s Believe Child Advocacy Center, which operates under the auspices of Safelight, a nonprofit agency providing free support for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse. “As adults, often our healing begins when an abuser is convicted and is serving a life sentence in prison, but it’s very different for children. Just being believed is so impactful. I couldn’t think of a more welcoming or perfect term for our child advocacy center than ‘Believe.’”
Believe opened its doors in December of 2015 as part of a merger between Mainstay and the Healing Place, organizations that dealt with, respectively, issues of domestic violence and sexual assault in Henderson County. The unified agency took the name Safelight in January 2016 and also includes a shelter, a job-training program, and the Family Justice Center.
“When you think about it, domestic violence and sexual assault are not mutually exclusive crimes,” notes Craven. “It made sense to merge the two.”
The alliance strengthened survivors’ support services throughout Hendersonville and the surrounding area, with the Child Advocacy Center, in particular, filling an important gap. “This was a real missing piece that our community had,” affirms Tanya Blackford, Safelight’s executive director. “Our community had had a child-advocacy center, but it was disbanded. One office in Asheville was trying to see all the counties in Western North Carolina, which made it really hard on kids and families, and for prosecution. Our community needed this.”
Believe Child Advocacy Center takes a multidisciplinary approach, facilitating partnerships and communication across the Department of Social Services, criminal justice system, hospitals, and counselors. “The reason that this is an important model is that it’s a one-stop shop,” explains Craven. “The child and family can come here and have a forensic interview and immediately be referred for victim services. It’s easier for child to tell a story once to one person, rather than seven times to seven different agencies.”
Having advocates from each of these areas working together also allows for conversations that weren’t possible in the past, which helps to prevent clients from falling through the cracks in the system. “I know that everybody is all working for the same team,” says Craven, “but there are a lot of moving parts, and we’re all in different positions. To use a sports metaphor, if the first baseman doesn’t know what the third baseman is doing, he’s not going to get the outs.”
Believe received official accreditation from National Children’s Alliance this past June, a process which requires that child-advocacy centers adhere to ten essential standards to ensure children across the U.S. receive consistent, evidence-based support. Believe is one of 35 accredited centers in North Carolina.
Safelight will host an inaugural fundraiser, “Night of the Child,” this month in support of Believe’s efforts. And while both Craven and Blackford acknowledge that the subject of child abuse doesn’t particularly lend itself to a festive atmosphere of art, food, and wine, they maintain the tenor of the evening will be inspirational.
“When I talk about my job [to a group], at least two people are sobbing by the end,” admits Craven. “With this event we are really focusing on the part where kids end up okay, and are super resilient. I think everybody who comes will leave feeling hopeful and uplifted.
“The message that I try to give people is that when we become aware of what a kid has lived through, we’re horrified. But the truth is that the kid has already gone through that. It’s about to start getting better. If we can focus on that, focus on getting the kid to the next step, it doesn’t feel so big and insurmountable.”
That sliver of optimism is borne out as Believe’s staff works with kids over time. “[Case manager] Taylor [Roof] and I have seen kids who couldn’t even make eye contact, and a year later they’re running in and they’re just kids,” Craven says. “People are healing. Not that it’s easy or will ever be the same, but now they can just be kids.”
Night of the Child, which includes a silent auction with artwork donated by local artists, will be held Saturday, September 9, 6–9 pm at Burntshirt Vineyards in Hendersonville (2695 Sugarloaf Road). Tickets are $50, available at safelightfamily.org or by calling 828-693-3840.