HANCOCK COUNTY — Giving abused children in Hancock County a safe place to share their stories is what Zoey’s Place is all about.
Bridget Foy, who specializes in sex crime cases for the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, is spearheading efforts along with several local officials to finally get Zoey’s Place — the Hancock County Child Advocacy Center — off the ground and operational.
The group is currently looking for a place — a home or friendly-looking structure — to call Zoey’s Place, where all county children can go to talk about their abuse in a secure atmosphere. It must, Foy says, be someplace a little more kid-friendly than the current location at the sheriff’s department.
“We need to have a child-appropriate place locally,” Foy said.
The goal of creating a special place for children is to reduce the need for repeated interviews by multiple agencies and to help alleviate the stress a child feels when describing dramatic life events.
The program is named after 1-year-old Zoey Wagoner of Greenfield, who died four years ago after suffering repeated physical abuse, an autopsy revealed. Authorities documented at least 50 injuries to Zoey’s body before her death in a house on Wood Street in May of 2015.
Zoey’s parents, Matthew Wagoner and Jessica Merriman, are both serving lengthy prison sentences for their role in her death.
The first thing on the Zoey’s Place to-do list is to secure the location. After that, officials want to hire an executive director who can run the day-to-day operations, including talking with children. Organizers hope to make both of their goals a reality sooner rather than later.
“I think financially we are in a position where we can do that, but we won’t run the risk unless we have an appropriate amount of money to sustain the program,” Foy said.
The group is trying to secure an estimated $108,000 per year with the help of county funds and donations like the $10,000 they generated in a fundraiser. Foy has already approached county officials about securing money and is looking for positive feedback soon. She plans to also meet with city officials in the coming weeks.
Once the funds are certain, beyond 2019, the executive board of Zoey’s Place will hire a director to settle in and start helping abused children.
Foy has personally interviewed dozens of abused or neglected children over the past 4½ years and said it’s important for the county to have a full-time, highly trained person to do the job.
There were 1,144 reports of child abuse and neglect in the county in 2015, the year Zoey died — a 3 percent increase from the year before. Local officials saw a spike in 2016 when the number of reports jumped to 1,475 — a nearly 29 percent increase from 2015. The total figure in 2017 was 1,596, county officials said.
When Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton, a Zoey’s Place executive board member, asked Miles Hercamp to also join the board, Hercamp realized the county indeed needed a child advocacy center.
Hercamp, a Southern Hancock schools official, looked at similar facilities in other counties and was amazed at the proactive and positive ways other counties are helping abused and neglected children.
He identified a program called Susie’s Place Child Advocacy Centers in Avon, Bloomington and Terre Haute as an ideal example of a program that helps children not only share their stories of neglect, but works to help children heal.
“Our kids in Hancock County deserve a similar location to feel safe and welcome to tell their stories,” Hercamp said.
Hercamp, who has worked with children for decades as an educator and administrator, said a child advocacy center is badly needed in the county.
The advocacy center officially became a non-profit agency with 501(c)(3) status in 2015, but the effort lost steam until a committed group of professionals met in 2018 to re-establish the goals. Foy and several other county officials, including Marie Castetter, chief deputy prosecutor, reinvigorated the idea for the program and were thrilled to gain a $25,000 grant from State Farm in 2018.
Now the group wants to follow through and take the project to the next step by securing the location and funding. Board members are hoping a community member might see the need and consider donating a home or allow them to rent a house they can renovate for the project for a discounted price.
Twenty-five similar child-advocacy programs already exist in the state, Foy said, and it’s time the county had one of its own.
“Every one of the agencies operates differently, but there are one or two that are completely government funded,” Foy said. Local officials think they can get funding through multiple channels.
Anyone interested in helping the cause can contact Foy at the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department at 317-477-1147.