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A place of refuge for young victims

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The call came while he was driving on U.S. 17 in Spotsylvania County.

His daughter had told relatives that her grandfather sexually molested her. The dad was asked to meet her at the Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center in Massaponax.

The dad—who isn’t being named to protect his daughter’s identity—had never heard of the center, which serves area children involved in child abuse cases.

Safe Harbor was about to become the beacon during a very dark time in the family’s life.

The 10-year-old girl came to the center, where she was interviewed by a specially trained investigator.

Outside the interview room, a team of detectives, nurses, therapists and social workers listened in—and added questions.

During the interview, the girl said that she had also been molested by her mother’s boyfriend. Both men later pleaded guilty and served jail time for the abuse.

The convictions were among hundreds that have come from interviews performed in the Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center in the past five years.

But the center provides more than ammunition for prosecutors. It also provides a safe, healing environment for victims.

The young girl spent most of her interview drawing pictures—which happens to be one of her favorite activities.

“She actually didn’t want to leave,” her father said. “She just wanted to stay there and draw pictures and hang out with them.”

That is often the case, said Pamela Garrett, director of Safe Harbor. She’s had to bribe children out the door because they don’t want to leave the center, which is decorated in soothing teal tones and colorful child-friendly murals.

Drawings of dinosaurs, fairies, pirates, stars, rainbows and flowers line the center’s main hallway. The whimsical sketches remind children using the center that they aren’t alone.

But they are also a stark reminder of just how needed the center is—more than 700 children have used the center since it opened its doors in May 2009.

“When you go in there and you see all the little drawings on the wall from the little kids, it’s a rude awakening how often [stuff] like this happens,” the girl’s father said.

The children and teens who come to the center typically must recount the most horrific experience of their lives—and to a total stranger.

But the Safe Harbor staff want to make sure that this experience doesn’t further traumatize the victims. Before the center opened, a child-abuse victim could endure as many as 14 interviews—at police stations, hospital rooms, social services departments and prosecutors’ offices.

“Victims are often interviewed multiple times, and every time they’re re-interviewed, you’re putting them through it all over again,” said Kristin Bird, a Stafford County assistant commonwealth’s attorney.

The child advocacy center offers a one-stop place for victims and includes a room for rape exams.

At the center, the child comes in and talks to one trained interviewer. The rest of the team sits in a conference room watching the interview on closed-circuit television. They use a microphone and ear piece to give suggestions and questions to the interviewer.

The experience is easier on the child—and more fruitful for prosecutors, Bird said.

The center reduces trauma to the victim, but it also helps the investigators and social workers, Garrett said. The team often meets to debrief after hearing especially horrific details. And they meet to follow up on cases.

Safe Harbor has also recently expanded its offerings and now provides support groups and counseling with a therapist trained in handling trauma.

So far, about 30 children have received therapy at the center. Garrett sees that number growing.

“Safe Harbor is a wonderful organization that is striving to assist and be effective in criminal prosecution,” Bird said. “But more importantly, they are helping children and their families to go through something that is far more difficult to go through than most of us can comprehend.”

Amy Umble: 540/735-1973


To donate to Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center, go online to or mail checks to: Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center; Box 56; Fredericksburg, Va. 22404.


Golden Monkey Tattoo will hold a charity event for Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center on Sept. 6, starting at noon at the tattoo parlor, 1901 Dixon Street in Fredericksburg. On that day, 100 percent of proceeds from tattoos and piercings will go to Safe Harbor. Artwork and baked goods will also be for sale. For details, go to