The name and logo have changed, but Edmondson-Telford Child Advocacy Center’s mission is still the same — working with children who have suffered sexual physical abuse or neglect.
“We’ve had 20 years, and I don’t think we’re working ourselves out of a job,” said Lydia Sartain, who as Hall County district attorney in the 1990s, helped start the center on Washington Street in Gainesville.
“I’ve heard you’ve already seen more (children) so far this year than all of last year,” she said, speaking at a 20th anniversary celebration Thursday.
As part of the event, the center — formerly known as the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children — put up more than 300 signs on Green and Washington streets depicting the ages and first names of children served at the center. The center serves 300-400 kids each year from Hall and Dawson counties, board member Melissa Tymchuk said.
“Take a second or two to look at those (signs),” said former Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro, a long-time Edmondson-Telford supporter. “Not so much the names, but the ages of them. That’s what gets me.”
“And those names and ages are mixed. They’re not identifying children,” Executive Director Heather Hayes said.
The event, drawing some 50 people or more, featured several speakers, including Sartain and Hall Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, who retraced the center’s history.
The center is responsible for forensic medical exams and interviews of child victims, working with law enforcement and the judicial system in prosecuting abuse cases.
Before it was established in 1997, a child “got pulled from one place to another, talking to multiple adults about what had happened to them, traumatizing the child and getting multiple versions of the story,” Deal said.
“So, when you went to trial, the focus was on the child and all the stories they had told,” he said. “That child … was traumatized again by having to go through that process.”
Today, a child is referred immediately to the center once an abuse complaint is made.
“This place is much nicer than the investigator’s office at the jail,” Deal said.
“When the case goes to court … the focus is being changed from the child being the subject of rigorous cross-examination to a battle of experts over whether the forensic interview was done correctly.”
Outrage around the death of 19-month-old Austin Sparks in 1996 is largely responsible for The Little House, which houses the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children and the Court-Appointed Special Advocates.
Jason Lamar Smith, Sparks’ then 17-year-old babysitter, confessed to beating Sparks. He received a life prison sentence without parole that was modified in 2014 to give him the chance of parole.
State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, also praised the center’s efforts.
“The work that this agency does changes lives,” he said. “I think about the children walking around with this burden that they have, and they feel like they’ve done something wrong. They didn’t do anything wrong, and this (center) helps … those children work through those kinds of problems.”
Hayes said people frequently talk to her about firsthand experiences with the center.
“People say, ‘My child went through there,’ or ‘I adopted a child who went through there,’” she said. “I never know really how to respond, because that’s generally not a good background.”
A recent conversation stopped Hayes in her tracks.
When she replied, “I’m sorry. I hope it was a good response,” the person’s reply was, “Don’t be sorry. That was where the pain ended and the healing started.”
“That really stuck with me,” Hayes said. “That’s what we’re here for.”