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Child advocate No. 1

Emily Perry fulfills her dream with the creation and sustainability of Susie’s Place.

By Gus Pearcy

EmilyPerry-CoverHendricks County detective Susie Austin specialized in crimes against children. ­ Through programs that provided Teddy Bears to children of trauma or abuse and through the Teach-A-Bodies programs, she demonstrated her passion to put children first.

Four years after her death, another children’s advocate saw a vital need to protect children while investigating allegations of abuse. However, Emily Perry was armed with a model used nationwide to investigate crimes against children. ­They are called Child Advocacy Centers. In 2009, Susie’s Place opened its doors with Perry as its executive director.

In a small room sparsely decorated, sits two extremely overstuffed chairs, an end table with tissues and a flip chart on an easel. Inset in the walls and ceiling are two cameras. Here is where an alleged child victim talks with a trained forensic interviewer. ­The interviewer explains where the cameras are and who is sitting in a room down the hall. It is a collection of law enforcement, prosecutors, Child Protective Services, mental health and medical teams. Anyone who needs to hear what the victim has to say.

“We’re considered a first responder, which means as soon as a call comes in to the child abuse hotline or through 911 to law enforcement, whoever is assigned to that case … contacts us directly and we help investigate that crime,” Perry said. “We are kind of the point person for doing the interview with the child and then helping coordinate what those next steps are for that child, whether it’s going to a mental health provider for after-care support or going directly to a medical provider because they are in some sort of need of forensic medical evaluation.”

It’s a difficult job to imagine because the majority of cases Susie’s Place staff investigates are sexual abuse. ­These range from hands on molestation to sex trafficking to exploitation to Internet crimes against children. ­ Then there are the crimes that children witness, like family homicides or domestic violence.

Years ago, this was not the case. Victims gave multiple interviews in intimidating circumstances and were forced to relive the trauma several times over. From CPS interviews to law enforcement to home interviews of family to another interview with prosecutors, the process would continue. ­ e process was not child-friendly, Perry said.

Ehren Bingaman also sits on the board and says the process that kids go through can be very tough.

“What folks don’t realize is when an abuse situation is suspected, whoever sees it first is going to talk to the kid and then they might get authorities involved and they’re going to talk to the kid,” Bingaman said. “­The prosecutors are going to get involved and maybe have to be deposed by the defense, so it can be a very stressful straining process on kids. And you don’t always have sophisticated professionals with the ability to do the forensic interviews. “

“What this process does is bring all these key players together on the front end of the case,” Perry added. “It minimizes the risk of trauma to the kids and by using a forensic interviewer that’s trained specifically to do that, it gets much more defendable when it goes to court or we get information much more quickly to find nothing happened and we can get these kids and families back together as quickly as possible.”

Hendricks County, as well as other parts of central Indiana, did not offer such a program. Perry saw the need and set out to do something about it.

After two years of meeting skepticism, Perry was able to pull off an informational meeting for several investigative departments. Out of that, she was able to form a steering committee. Another two years of work paid offand Susie’s Place opened in 2009. Since then it has added another location in Bloomington, and conducted more than 2,000 interviews for 21 other Indiana counties and eight other states.

“We are neutral forensic interviewers,” Perry stressed. “­ The only cases we do are being criminally investigated by law enforcement or a safety assessment by the Department of Child Services. Often those are happening simultaneously. Our role is to conduct the interview that is just information gathering in nature.

“We have no vested interest in whether it gets prosecuted or substantiated. Our job is to create an environment where kids feel safe and comfortable.”

Ask others to describe Perry and the main adjective is passionate. Marta Fetterman, chair of the Susie’s Place Board of Directors says the organization owes plenty to Perry.

“She saw a need – something she was passionate about – and she acted on it,” Fetterman said. “A lot of us see need and don’t do anything about it. She doesn’t do that. She worked and made it happen through her own grit and determination.

Perry’s past prepared her well for this line of work. Her mother is Diane Burks, a founder of the Indiana Institute of Families. Burks sat on the first child abuse task force in Indiana with Susie Austin.

She has always known that she wanted to help children.

Her first internship was in the public defender’s office in Philadelphia. ­ There she worked in the child advocacy unit. She moved to Portland, Ore., where she got a job with the department of child services. ­ There she investigated sex abuse allegations.

When she returned to Indiana in 2002, she worked in Shelby County as an investigator for crimes against children. “When I came back to Indiana and started working in Shelby County, it was literally like coming back 20 years in terms or resources for kids and investigating crimes against children,” Perry said. “Oftentimes, our interventions were more traumatizing to kids than helpful.”

Trained forensic interviewers use age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate techniques with a goal of finding the truth of a situation, from child molestation to nasty custody disputes. Whether or not these reach the level of prosecution is inconsequential to the interviewer. ­ They are focused on the child and the next steps to return them to a sense of normalcy.

While Susie’s Place is a nonprofit, it does have a contract with Department of Child Services, but it only provides about 40 percent of the operating expenses. And because of its commitment to neutrality, Susie’s Place does not take money from prosecutors, lawyers, or law enforcement entities. ­

The rest of the operating cash is raised through special events and individual and corporate donors. Despite the horrific stories Perry encounters, the interview is her favorite part of the day. She says she’d much rather do that than figure out budgets and how to get the cash needed to continue to help the children.

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