It was a hectic, but so important 48 hours.
Within two days, I would go from a Thursday afternoon… a roughly 3 hour flight from New York City to Dallas, Texas. Followed by an immediate 2 hour drive in an Alamo bright Red Rental SUV to McAlester Oklahoma arriving just before dark. I would have 4 hours of sleep at a hotel located on the busy George Nigh Expressway strip with Casinos less than a mile away, only to wake up Friday and speak at a Child Advocacy Center conference in McAlester. Then drive 2 hours immediately afterwards to Tulsa Oklahoma, and finish the night with a four hour drive from Tulsa, back to Dallas, to then fly back home to NYC. The wake-up call in Dallas Saturday morning was 3 am, for a 6:30 am flight. Hey at least we had the opportunity to have a quick Friday night dinner about 10pm in downtown Dallas at a place called Frankie’s. Then I slept 40 minutes on the plane headed home. I was just too excited thinking about the work being done at the Child Advocacy Center in McAlester, which is named Ryan’s House, and it’s Executive Director I had just met, is Jessika Whitman.
Life has taught me to appreciate the little things that we often take for granted. When I was done speaking, it was a beautiful warm day in McAlester. I took in the fresh Oklahoma air, and the magnificent landscape. As far as I was concerned I would do my world-wind 48 hour trip again, over and over if necessary. That’s how important Child Advocacy Centers are.
These organizations have revolutionized the United States’ response to Child Abuse. They help children that have gone through tremendous trauma. The Child Advocacy Centers do miracles every day helping Children that have been abused all around the country. For me, this is personal, and it’s also personal for the people that work at Child Advocacy Centers, like Executive Director Jessika Ryan.
“If you’re in this position, you have to have a passion for it. And this is my purpose in life. This is everyone who works with a child, this is our purpose! You’re not… you don’t go into this field for a paycheck, you don’t go into this field for any other reason, besides trying to help a child work through trauma and see that hope. And that’s our goal this year is to become a more hope centered CAC. We’re trying to push hope onto every child, not just children of abuse, but to every child in the community. So that’s the main reason why we are here. We are here to to get these children through their trauma, and do it in the less traumatic experience way possible.” Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
Unless I’m delivering a keynote address around our country or in Canada or Jamaica to try to help children like me, I don’t really talk about this, but my life has been defined by trauma in a lot of ways.
My mother suffered from severe Mental Illness and was diagnosed with “Chronic Paranoid Schizophrenia,” Child Abuse, Foster Care, Childhood Sexual Abuse, no Father ever in my life…and the only male relative that was present… was my Heroin Addicted grandfather. But here is the silver lining, society has come a long way. Now we have Child Advocacy Centers to help such kids. Dominic’s life was profiled in Oprah Winfrey’s Magazine as a victim of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Here with his wife Marilyn
Love Among the RuinsPhoto: Mary Ellen Mark
So what exactly is a Child Advocacy Center. Executive Director Whitman explained to me.
“Okay, that’s actually a great question. So child advocacy centers play more like a central role for child abuse investigations. So we are the place where investigators, child welfare workers, and prosecution teams, really anyone on that investigation team meets is the place where the child comes for forensic interviews….child advocacy programs. -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
It’s the place (Child Advocacy Centers) for children to have the least traumatic experiences possible when telling their story or talking about their experience of abuse.” Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
And you might ask Why are Child Advocacy Centers necessary?
“Well, people don’t understand… I don’t think they understand how prominent abuse is. There’s multiple types of abuse, they range from many types of different things. Neglect, physical, there’s a whole spectrum of abuse. And it’s in every community. -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
It wasn’t until I got into this field that I realized how prominent Child Abuse was. You see stories and you hear or you watch movies or read papers, and you think it just happens maybe to 10% of the population. And that’s not the case at all, I would say about 70% has experienced some type of abuse. -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
Then there is a sad reality….that I, as the writer of this knows all too well.
And children in these situations, that have been sexually abused, often times… the perpetrator is someone they know? Dominic Carter
Absolutely. It’s most often someone they know, a family member or family friend. -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
Ok, specifically what do CAC’s do? (Child Advocacy Centers) It is a difficult job to get children to express themselves on the issue of being sexually abused. Some children keep such dark secrets all their lives, never sharing the details with anyone. But Child Advocacy Centers make sure Children when they do come forward, are not in a position to have to tell their horrible stories over and over again through a centralized process called “Forensic interviewing.”
“So the forensic interviewing is the main thing. And like I said that the children come to us for that. And we are the central hub. So that means that the child has a safe place. We testify on behalf of them for in court situations. So that’s our main service that we provide for them. And then also the advocacy program. So if these children need mental health referrals or medical referrals, we’re there for that as well. We are the middleman we are that child’s advocate. That is the best word for it. We make sure they get every service they need.” -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
Here in McAlester Oklahoma….The Child Advocacy Center is named Ryan’s House….named after Ryan Luke, a 2-year-old McAlester boy who died in 1995 from blunt force trauma to the head. In your community wherever you are reading this from or in Canada, the Child Advocacy Center has a different name… but trust me it’s there in your community….doing God’s work.
I then looked at Ms. Whitman directly and was afraid to ask the next question, but proceeded with caution. Are there any stories that broke your heart?-Dominic Carter
“Yes. And well, everyone of them does. To be honest. I mean, there’s no way I cannot connect or feel some kind of way. I’m super empathetic anyway. But, there’s no way I could not think about every child that came through… there on my mind every single night. But vicarious trauma, which we know is common in this field, I have a daughter who is visually impaired and blind in her left eye. And so when I see children come through who have special needs or anything of that nature, those are always difficult or a little extra difficult to deal with. And so that goes back into making sure that we that are in this profession are taking care of ourselves as well.” -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
“And that brings up a good question. How do you balance? You’re a mom yourself? Yes. Yet you’re an Extended Mom, if you will, as the executive director of Ryan’s House here in McAlester, Oklahoma. So how do you balance your personal life as a mom when you’re dealing with kids that need tremendous help… all day long?”-Dominic Carter
“That’s a great question because it took me a while. And to be able to do that. I have to come home and literally shut down my mind and then go into Mom mode, and remember that I’m there for them. But as soon as I’m back at my desk in the morning, or actually, as soon as I wake up, I’m right back into what I have to do today, or what children I need to reach out to, but it really comes down to having to find a way to shut your mind down, because you cannot let both worlds live together, or it just wouldn’t work. It just, it would be miserable.” -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
“You ever receive telephone calls in the middle of the night?”-Dominic Carter
“I’m on call 24/7? So yes, we’ve had. So if there’s a severe case, as in sexual assault, or something of that nature that requires a medical exam, we come in anytime, or any other type that requires a child needing a safe place than our center is that place for them. So yes, I’m on call 24/7. And just like our welfare workers and our law enforcement officers.” -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
So when an adult woman has to go through a rape kit…That’s traumatizing in itself? Absolutely!!! -Jessika Whitman says in answering Dominic Carter
So what happens in the event of a child? Do they have to go through the same thing? -Dominic Carter
They do? It’s not in a hospital setting. It’s in our facility. Actually, the CAC is the location for the exams or any of the assault exams, and the child comes in and again, we try our best to provide that child friendly environment. And we provide clothing even you know, toys or whatever, depending on what the ages. We try to provide any type of comfort items for them after the procedure is done. But yes, we are the location where these assault exams are done. -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you feel the public needs to know about children advocacy centers? -Dominic Carter
“I don’t think the public realizes how, how hard we search for funding and for support, because it is a daily struggle to make sure that we have a budget that’s not only going to, we only have two individuals at our facility right now, working everything I’ve just talked about. So it is a daily struggle to find grants and to let the public know or our community know how much support we need…from it could be office supplies to exam kits, or even the curriculum I was talking about. Everything requires money, of course. And so the kits are very expensive. There’s nothing cheap in this world as far as law enforcement or evidence collection and things of that nature. So the financial aspects….That that’s a very tough one. That’s that’s the hardest part about being a nonprofit.–Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House You’ve also got to put on your fundraising hat and make sure that the money comes in.” -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
“Yes, I never thought I would try to be a salesperson growing up. But I feel like that’s the role I’ve stepped into his trying to show people what we do at the center. And boy, I’m always out there talking about Ryan’s House and to advocate for our center myself, and why we need these funds.” -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
While here in McAlester, Oklahoma. I’ve seen African Americans, Whites, Native Americans. I’m told that you have a large Hispanic community. You deal with kids in terms of all those different communities? -Dominic Carter
“Absolutely. Like I said, our larger percentage, and I’m sorry, I don’t have statistics right in front of me right now. But I do know that over 60% were tribal children. And then the rest were filtered in there as well. We’ve see children from every culture, every culture, and it’s, like I said, It’s mind boggling. I’m from this community and had no idea what goes on.” -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
“Tell me something good about the State of Oklahoma.” — Dominic Carter
“The best thing has actually been brought to my attention in the last few weeks. And that again, is teamwork. I have had everyone from every agency reaching out to me to let me know that they are there to support me. I think that goes through everything. That’s not just advocacy centers. We are such a helping state, we want everyone to succeed.” -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
And this is a Child Advocacy Center that is making tremendous progress.
“So we’re actually working on getting our new website up. We just got a new location and that’s will be at RyansHousecac.org. And then we also have a Pay Pal where most of our donations come through, which is the Pittsburgh County Child Abuse effort. And it’s labeled PC care as for short, but again, anyone can always reach out to me as well. -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
My parting thoughts to Jessika were:
“I had a lovely time in town here in McAlester. I wish me, my wife Marilyn, and my son Dominic Jr, were here longer… but you’re a wonderful person. Thank you for the hospitality. Thank you more importantly for what you do on behalf of Children.” -Dominic Carter
Jessika with her contagious smile said:
“Thank you for coming all this way to share your important story and everything that you’ve spoken about today. We’re very blessed to have you here.” -Jessika Whitman/Executive Director of Ryan’s House
Folks if there ever was an organization around the country that needs our help financially….they are Children Advocacy Centers. Look up your local one…and certainly please help Ryan’s House in Oklahoma. They are all doing wonderful wonderful work.