Arkansas leaders making a difference, one family at a time

Blue lights are alarming to most adults, especially when they’re in the rearview mirror. But blue signals hope for children who have been abused. That was the message sent earlier this year when the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion lit up in blue.

The State Police’s child abuse hotline received more than 30,000 calls in 2018, but that number is likely nowhere close to the whole story.

This past spring, all 100 Arkansas House members, and all 35 Senate members sponsored a resolution to make April 11 Children’s Advocacy Center Day in the state. Elizabeth Pulley, Executive Director of Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas, welcomes the attention and appreciation for the tireless work of the 17 regional centers which comprise the state chapter. But in her heart, she knows there remains much work to do.

From her administrative offices in downtown Little Rock, an unassuming Pulley downplays her title and authority, instead expressing admiration and respect for the many employees who do the lion’s share of burden-bearing for children and families of abuse.

Elizabeth Pulley, CAC Executive Director

The regional offices provide a unique collaborative setting in which interdisciplinary teams focus on helping children who have been identified as likely victims of abuse. These teams include mental health counselors, forensic investigators, nurses, law enforcement personnel, and child advocates.

Last year the 17 centers served some 5,000 children. Still, Pulley is quick to point out that “what is reported within Arkansas is not 100 percent of what’s happening in the state.” She believes that many people simply don’t feel comfortable coming forward with information about known or suspected abuse, despite the toll-free hotline where calls are confidential.

Pulley says this is especially true in smaller, more rural communities, where connections are close and where loyalty and privacy are the bedrock of family values.

While ‘stranger danger’ has become something of a mantra, especially in school settings, Pulley reminds that “90 percent of the time abuse happens at the hands of people the kids know.”

Where abuse is concerned, the lines are not always clearly defined – especially from a child’s perspective. Pulley says, “The ‘not normal’ is the normal for a lot of kids. They often don’t know something is wrong until someone tells them.”

Child Abuse Part of a Larger Issue

Angela McGraw directs Women and Children First, a domestic violence shelter and social services program that has served the greater Little Rock area in some capacity for more than 40 years. In its present situation, individuals and families can stay for 45-60 days, “as long as they’re working the program.”

Angela McGraw, Executive Director, Women & Children First

McGraw has a front-row seat to the growing problem of families in crisis. And she brings her own personal experience as a survivor of domestic violence to bear on her work.

“Our numbers are close to 600 people – women and children – per year,” she says. “I anticipate that this year will be high too. We rarely have any beds open.”

McGraw sees bullying and dating violence as ongoing expressions of the same problem – a cycle that perpetuates the confluence of several key aspects: anger, power, and shame. And as she suggests, most abusers come from abusive backgrounds.

While McGraw’s team works mainly with women, increasingly the organization is intentionally focusing on children.

“Over the last three years, we’ve taken major steps forward in concentrating on children and growing our program,” McGraw says. “We have to break the cycle somehow, and it’s important for kids to have hope.”

But hope is not always easy to find, especially for children who only know despair. “Many of them really doubt they’ll even live to see adulthood, because they’re so used to bad family situations,” she says. “Giving them hope that they can get to college is a big deal.”

The cycle of violence takes a toll on victims as well as social workers. McGraw says it’s hard to watch people go right back into the same environment that inflicted the pain.

McGraw encourages and trains her staff to model healthy behaviors, in hopes that the adults they serve will come to experience the freedom that flows from relationships built on dignity and respect.

“We operate from a place of empowerment,” she states with an upbeat tone.

Meeting in a somewhat musty room that serves as both the building manager’s office and a staff breakroom, McGraw seems comfortable with chaos. It just goes with the territory. The odds and ends that clutter the metal shelving units seem somehow symbolic of the social services field — and probably the lives of many who pass through the shelter’s doors.

Boxes here. Cables there. It’s no doubt the same story for the individuals striving to break free from abuse. They’re not picky, after all. They just want a safe place to land, if only for a little while.

Chaos, of course, can manifest itself in any number of ways. There’s family chaos, work chaos, and cultural chaos. It’s the latter that seems most concerning to McGraw on this particular day.

She leans back, sighs softly, and states matter-of-factly, “Little Rock has been deemed one of the most violent cities in the US. And that includes domestic violence.”

She pauses to gather her thoughts.

“Everybody who’s dealing with violence, it almost always goes back to domestic violence during their growing-up years.”

There it is again. That cycle.

Among McGraw’s most urgent worries is the prevalence of domestic violence among the city’s African-American and Latino populations. She speculates that Caucasians likely just don’t report it as much.

McGraw with Latino Outreach Leader, Liliana Covarrubias

But her heart breaks for the Latino families, who in today’s political climate, are reluctant to report due to fears of being deported. McGraw employs a full-time Hispanic worker whose primary responsibility is building relationships with the city’s Latinos.

“We’re not interested in reporting people,” she says. “We just want to provide a safe place for them to get help.”

As she adjusts her glasses and leans forward, McGraw mentions one more segment of the population that is experiencing an uptick in abuse reporting. That would be men.

“Among men, the numbers are increasing a lot,” she says. “They can experience domestic abuse as well. But there’s a lot of shame in acknowledging it as a man. A lot of times we see men staying in abusive relationships because they feel they’re needed in order to protect the children.”

McGraw says the board of Women and Children First has actually discussed changing the agency’s name to one that is more inclusive of the population served, but those kinds of changes take considerable time and effort. Name recognition is invaluable to a non-profit organization.

Regardless of the name, McGraw and her team do their best to serve whoever comes through their doors — women, children, AND men. That covers a lot of ground, as communities go.

Cultural Shifts Compound the Problem

As Pulley begins downloading her thoughts about current culture, I notice that between the two of us, there are five gadgets of one kind or another. A couple smartphones, a couple laptops, and a digital camera – all reminders that things aren’t like they used to be when she and I were growing up.

“Kids have more access to everything these days,” she insists. “What they know now at the age of 10 or 11, compared with what I knew at the same age, is really, really different.”

It’s an undeniable fact. With today’s technology, kids are exposed to so much more, for better or worse.

Pulley acknowledges the difficulty of parents staying on top of the latest social media platforms, gaming devices, and internet sensations. But she stops short of absolving the adults of responsibility.

“Parents need to be constantly checking their kids’ technology.”

She urges parents and grandparents to educate themselves about technology. “Engaging in conversations with other parents is important – what they know, what they should look for.” She says that many schools are offering training seminars about technology and how to monitor and manage it.

“Being hands-off shouldn’t be an option for parents,” Pulley notes.

Of course, even the most conscientious parents can’t catch everything. There are times when children whose phones are policed religiously are going to be exposed to something objectionable – or even illegal.

Parents can’t control what another kid shows their kid at school, at the soccer field, or at a sleepover.

That’s why Pulley emphasizes the importance of ‘tech-free’ times or even ‘tech-free’ days. “Kids shouldn’t have access to that stuff all the time.” She encourages parents to be intentional about creating space for conversations. It may not happen over family dinner, but it could happen in the car.

Looking for Answers to a Complex Problem

For McGraw, who has seen seniors in high school who have zero – yes, zero – academic credits, she believes domestic violence has a considerable ripple effect on children and teens.

She thinks most kids are incapable of performing well in school or in life, if their basic needs for safety and security – emotional and physical – are not being met.

Children in McGraw’s program have access to support groups, and many participate in something called Camp Hope, which allows for ongoing follow-up with them and their families.

McGraw sees far too many children who by necessity function like little adults. “In so many cases the children feel like it’s their responsibility to step up and help their moms.”

Among her top tips for parents, McGraw suggests that children “need to have their own personal safety plan” – which includes knowing who their ‘safe people’ are (family members, neighbors, teachers, etc.), as well as how to call 911.

McGraw understands far more than most that it can be disheartening to see people go back into abusive situations.

“I often have parents call and ask what they can do. They may have bought her a car or gotten her an apartment twice,” she said. “I just tell them ‘stop saving her.’ Help her, but don’t save her. Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom to begin crawling back up again.”

She admits quietly, “I was one of those people.”

The Future of Children’s Advocacy Centers

Robin Connell, Executive Director of Child Safety Center of White County

In the CAC offices throughout the state, children’s colorful handprints on walls bear evidence of the thousands who have been served in some way. But for Pulley, each set of handprints – some of them tiny — reminds her of the thousands of cases in which abuse goes unreported.

It’s a thought that evokes both sadness and resolve.

The CAC currently operates seven satellite centers, which are smaller centers in rural communities that probably don’t need a full-time staff there every single day. “We’re looking at adding more of them,” she says.

The need is one of simple pragmatism, especially in outlying areas.

“Sometimes people can’t get to our centers based on lack of transportation or money for gas. We’re looking for places that would allow us space to come in and set up once a week or once a month.”

But that’s not the only innovative idea Pulley has for the centers.

“We’re also looking at having mobile units that can go into some of these rural communities and provide services for kids and families,” she says. “We’re trying to think out of the box for these rural communities, because they make up such a huge part of our state.”

Pulley sees the need for more programs, more counselors, more mentors, and more volunteers. The agency’s newest advocacy center is in Batesville. She says that some rural areas, like the one served by the new facility, don’t even have enough counselors to see kids. And the few counselors who are there are so overworked that it’s difficult for them to take on new cases.

In Searcy, the Child Safety Center of White County (part of the state’s CAC) was the first to add a facility dog to its team. This dog, a two-year-old black lab named Jake, has just one job – to help the children feel comfortable while they talk about some of the darkest experiences of their young lives.

Beth Light, Trauma Therapist and Clinical Director, with Jake

Pulley becomes teary-eyed as she reflects on what she’s heard from the team there. “You can’t even imagine the stories and seeing how that dog has helped that kid through a horrible day. But they love it. The thank-you notes they write that dog are just incredible.”

This month, the center in Searcy added a second facility dog, a female named Nike. And take note, CAC staffers. Pulley thinks every center should have a facility dog.

The reality is that dogs and mobile units are fun to think about, but what’s most important is the vision that keeps Pulley thinking forward, day and night.

“We want to reach every single kid who has suffered abuse,” she says. “We don’t want any child to not have access to services.”

 If you know or suspect abuse of a child, please call the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline at 1-844-SAVE-A-CHILD. If you are in a violent or abusive relationship and need help, call the emergency hotline at 1-800-332-4443. All calls are confidential.

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