GREENFIELD — Hancock County has received a $25,000 grant to make its child advocacy center a reality. At the same time, those spearheading the project have announced a change in the proposed center’s name that aims to recognize and remember the victim of one of the county’s most notorious child neglect cases.
The center — a place where young Hancock County crime victims can report offenses and be safely and easily interviewed by investigators — has earned from State Farm’s Neighborhood Assist program.
The pitch for a child advocacy center was one of 40 projects from around the country to earn grant money. Votes for the winners were cast in an online, nationwide poll last month.
Days before learning they’d earned the grant money, leaders of the project announced that Hancock County’s child advocacy center would be called Zoey’s Place.
The title recognizes 1-year-old Zoey Wagoner, who died three years ago after a short life marred by physical abuse, an autopsy of her body revealed, according to investigators.
Zoey’s parents, Matthew Wagoner and Jessica Merriman, are now serving lengthy prison sentences for their role in her death.
Investigators can never be sure of what happened at the house on Wood Street in Greenfield that May morning in 2015 when Zoey died, as Wagoner never admitted to abusing her. He was the last person to see her alive. A jury convicted him of murder and neglect of a dependent resulting in death, and he’s serving 67 years in prison.
Merriman pleaded guilty to four counts of neglect of a dependent, admitting that she put Zoey and her two siblings in danger when she left them in Wagoner’s care.
Coroners documented at least 50 injuries to Zoey’s body that occurred in the hours before her death. They also found past injuries, including ones that never healed properly, suggesting the abuse was ongoing, court documents state.
It’s fitting that a place dedicated to ensuring children’s safety and wellbeing should be named for Zoey, said Prosecutor Brent Eaton. Her death changed the community in a lot of ways.
People seem more ready to hold caregivers responsible for misbehavior, to not turn a blind eye when they become suspicious a child is being mistreated, Eaton said.
Records kept by the Indiana Department of Child Services, of reports of abuse and neglect in the county, suggest the same.
Prior to Zoey’s death, in 2013 and 2014, the department handled an average of about 90 reports a month about suspected child abuse and neglect in Hancock County. In all, there were 1,080 reports made in 2013; and 1,109 reports made in 2014 — a 2 percent increase overall.
There were 1,144 reports of child abuse and neglect in 2015, the year Zoey died — a 3 percent increase from the year before.
But there was a spike in 2016 when the number of reports jumped to 1,475 — a nearly 29 percent increase from 2015.
Reports have stayed high since then, records show. In 2017, the total was 1,596. By June 2018, 1,105 reports had already been made.
State officials have long credited the increase in child abuse and neglect cases — it’s a trend experienced statewide, not just in Hancock County — to increases in drug abuse and addiction among parents.
Eaton agrees with that assessment; but thinks Zoey’s death played a role, too, at least locally. And the sharp spike in the statistics immediately after her murder reaffirms his thinking, he said.
Drug use around children does certainly lead to a lot of reports to police, he said; but, overall, people are just more aggressive about calling in their suspensions than they used to be, and he credits that to Zoey.
“They’re twin issues here,” Eaton said.
Child advocacy centers help law enforcement hold those who abuse and neglect children accountable.
Calling Hancock County’s child advocacy center Zoey’s Place will just serve as a reminder of what can happen if such people aren’t brought to justice, Eaton said. In a way, it’s a reminder as much as a recognition.
The grant from State Farm will only help bring the center to fruition, those leading the project say.
The purpose of child advocacy centers is to give young crime victims a safe place to talk about the abuse or neglect they’ve suffered; somewhere warm and welcoming, away from the guns and badges of a police department, to open up about what’s happened to them.
The child’s conversation with an interviewer is captured by surveillance cameras and broadcast into another room in the building, where police, prosecutors and caseworkers from the Indiana Department of Child Services can watch the interview live, making notes and relaying questions back to the interviewer.
This ensures a child is interviewed about criminal allegations just once, minimizing any fear or discomfort they might have.