From now on, when a child shares his or her story of neglect or abuse, they’ll get to sit in a large, comfortable chair inside a house, while a camera and audio equipment, safely tucked from view, records and relays the evidence to investigators watching in a conference room upstairs.
Zoey’s Place Child Advocacy Center is now officially open.
Dozens of community members visited with staff at the center, 953 W. North St., during an open house Wednesday to celebrate the grand opening, which included a ribbon cutting ceremony.
Executive Director Crystal Wiley noted while the first cases won’t arrive until the last week of September, it was important to get the doors open; welcome in the community; and let them see how officials plan to make a difference for abused and neglected children.
“The community has been involved in supporting us, so we wanted them to see this and find out what it all means,” Wiley said. “Officials have been fundraising for years, and it’s so good to see the doors open.”
Zoey’s Place is named after 1-year-old Zoey Wagoner, who died of severe abuse in 2015. Since then, law enforcement, child welfare professionals and other advocates have committed themselves to opening a center that will aid in the investigation of crimes and be a safe haven for at-risk children.
Rather than using a police department office or hospital emergency room to interview victims, the center allows for a comfortable, child-friendly environment where victims of abuse and neglect can feel safe.
“We couldn’t be happier for this day,” said board member Josh Sipes, who is also the county’s chief probation officer. “This is the blossom of a seed that was planted long ago.”
Sipes is hoping the center is but a beginning and with continued support can outgrow the current space, adding counselors and educational support as well as some day having a facility where investigators can handle multiple cases at once.
“This is a very small piece of what can be,” Sipes said.
Officials noted that centers like this one help increase communication between investigative agencies and reduce the number of interviews a child must endure as a criminal case is prepared. That in turn reduces the negative impact an interview can have and reduce the time spent by victims and their families rehashing a traumatic event.
“This initiative will absolutely help streamline the investigative process as well as help families, children and local departments during those difficult investigations,” said Paul Casey, chief of the McCordsville Police Department, who was one of the first law enforcement officials to visit the open house on Wednesday.
Casey credited Capt. Bridget Foy of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, who is the former board president; and the entire Zoey’s Place team for working hard to get what he called a “valuable resource” added to the community. It puts the county on par with some larger communities, he said.
Foy was given an award by the board in recognition of her leadership and dedication immediately prior to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The center should also provide for quicker prosecutions due to the efficiency of the case processing, Prosecutor Brent Eaton said.
“At long last, law enforcement and those who spend their career protecting the county’s youngest and most vulnerable will no longer be deprived of a critical tool that will be used to facilitate their protection,” Eaton said.
Eaton feels Zoey’s Place will serve as a beacon of hope and light in children’s darkest times. Eaton said the day Zoey Wagoner died was his darkest and most difficult day as prosecutor. The child’s parents are serving long prison sentences.
“The horrific nature of that crime will always be with those of us who together were successful in holding those defendants accountable,” Eaton said. “From that time of darkness came the light that exists today.”
Wiley anticipates the staff will interview 150 to 200 children throughout the reminder of the year and into 2021.
“Once they understand the full service we’re offering here, we’ll start seeing more and more kids,” Wiley said.
The center will be known as a neutral party that can offer services to children, but it still will work with law enforcement and the Department of Child Services. That will create a whole new dynamic, officials said.
Board president Katie Molinder noted the comfort behind the program is bringing awareness to the victims of crimes.
“We’re starting to see more headlines for rapists going to jail, for more domestic violence crimes being prosecuted, and we want to see child perpetrator headlines and this is a step,” Molinder said.
Officials are still looking for two work desks and other donations. Anyone wishing to help and find out more should stop by and talk with officials. The center will also be hosting a fundraiser golf outing, Sunday, Oct. 11, at Arrowhead Golf Course. The event starts at 12:30 p.m. For more information visit their website, zoeysplacecac.org or reach out to Wiley at the center.