FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — An advocacy center focused on serving children and families affected by sexual abuse in Aroostook County recently opened in Fort Fairfield and hopes to collaborate with other local agencies to provide crucial services that have not always been readily available.
The Aroostook County Children’s Advocacy Center is a division of the Aroostook Mental Health Center’s Sexual Assault Services and a part of the Maine Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers. Staff members serve children aged 4 to 18 as well as adults with developmental disabilities throughout Aroostook County.
Program Coordinator Lydia Christie said that the center’s staff members utilize a “multi-disciplinary team” approach in which they collaborate with law enforcement, officials from the Aroostook County District Attorney’s office and Child Protective Services during a family’s visit to ensure that they have access to any services they might need.
“Before children’s advocacy centers existed, law enforcement would often respond to a report of sexual abuse but not always know where to refer families for advocacy, counseling or legal services,” Christie said.
Families also would have had to travel as far as Portland to the Spurwink clinic, which provides forensic medical exams for children who have reported experiencing sexual abuse. Although Spurwink hosts monthly clinics at locations throughout the state, the nearest of those clinics is in Bangor.
The staff members at the Aroostook County Children’s Advocacy Center are working with Spurwink to eventually offer forensic medical exams at the Fort Fairfield location, thus eliminating the travel barrier that many families can face when seeking the specialized medical service. They also plan to offer evidence-based counseling services on site to ensure that any service that families might seek out exist under one roof.
In addition to Christie, the CAC staff includes forensic interviewer Laurie Deschaine, who conducts a private interview with victims regarding their alleged abuse, and Kate Bartlett, a family advocate who first meets with families, refers them to outside legal, medical or counseling services, and works to provide comfort to children while parents and guardians meet with law enforcement.
“My goal as an advocate is to have families leave here with the necessary appointments already scheduled,” Bartlett said. “I also follow up with families one week and then one month after their initial visit to help make sure nothing falls through the cracks.”
The CAC is a nonprofit organization that provides services free to families and receives funding from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Christie said that the first conversations about opening such a center in northern Maine began five years ago when lawmakers in the state Legislature passed the Child and Family Services and Child Protection Act. The law stated that all counties in Maine must establish a Children’s Advocacy Center that provides multidisciplinary services for children affected by sexual abuse.
In 2015, CAC staff members in Aroostook County formally received funding from DHHS, thus allowing them to develop services that align with their goal of receiving national accreditation. Officials from Northern Light A.R. Gould Hospital, then known as The Aroostook Medical Center, later offered to house the center at its health center in Fort Fairfield.
Christie noted that the CAC has received much support and financial donations from the community during the renovation of its current office space. On Saturday, Nov. 24, the center will be one of the organizations to benefit from funds collected from the Presque Isle Rotary Club’s annual TV auction.
“None of this could have been possible without the community stepping up and realizing everyone’s responsibility in keeping children safe,” Christie said.
Though statistics say that one in every five people in Maine will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives, Christie said, that type of data is harder to track with children, as many might go years without reporting an incident. Many children might not have the words to describe what happened to them and in some situations could feel shamed or scared into staying silent by their abuser.
If a child comes forward about sexual abuse, Christie and CAC staff members encourage adults to remain calm and assure the child that what they’ve experienced is not their fault.
“We want to be here for families and let them know that they’re not alone,” Christie said. “It’s our responsibility as a community to make sure all children feel safe.”