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12th Judicial District Child Advocacy Center – A Beacon of Hope and Prevention

Posted on Tuesday, January 30, 2024 at 11:17 am

CAC photo left to right:
Sgt Detective Beth Raulston, MCSD
Kelli Craig, CAC Executive Director
Gene Hargis, Chief Detective, MCSD Janet Thompson, Juvenile Court
Mayor David Jackson

LACIE SILVA – Editor

In the heart of the 12th Judicial District, the 12th Judicial District Child Advocacy Center (JDCAC) is making a profound impact on the lives of children and families who have been affected by child abuse by empowering children and advocating for change.

The 12th JDCAC serves the entire district with the main office in Jasper and other locations in Dunlap, Dayton, and Winchester. Established in 2019, the organization has been dedicated to implementing programs and serving the community. Their mission is to provide support, therapy, and advocacy to child abuse victims and their families. Additionally, they aim to educate children and families to prevent, recognize, and halt abuse. The center conducted their initial interview in February 2021 and has remarkably opened four offices within a six-month timeframe.

When allegations of abuse come through the system, whether reported by law enforcement or Child Protective Services (CPS), the center steps in to provide essential services. The organization empowers child victims by preparing them for court through victim advocates that ensure the child is ready to testify. They provide support and guidance to the family and victim. Forensic interviews are conducted to gather essential information for court proceedings while keeping non-offending family members informed. If a trial date is set and a child is going to testify, advocates help acclimate them to the courtroom environment and the types of questions they might face.

They aim to recognize and prevent abuse by teaching children to recognize warning signs and empowering them with knowledge. This includes self-defense training, creating awareness about potential dangers, and encouraging children to speak up. It’s a cornerstone of their approach that most children are truthful, and all allegations warrant investigation.

Self-defense training includes martial arts focusing on teaching children how to escape and report incidents of abuse, stressing that wrongdoers can come from any background. Notably, they highlight that only 8% of cases involve unrelated perpetrators, with the majority of victims knowing their abusers. A staggering 75% of cases in their district involve victims who are related to and reside with the perpetrator.

The importance of educating parents and children about the risks associated with social media involves understanding what content children are exposed to, monitoring their online interactions, and being vigilant about the people they engage with online. In an era where digital platforms play a significant role in young lives, this knowledge equips children and families with the tools they need to navigate the online world safely.

In the next five years, the 12th JDCAC plans to expand its operations, hire more therapists, and solidify its prevention programs. Their vision encompasses the establishment of child-friendly medical examination spaces in collaboration with local healthcare providers, creating a supportive atmosphere for sensitive medical situations. A full-time therapist is set to join the team in March 2024, in preparation for their upcoming prevention program and campaign.

Kelli Craig, executive director and trauma therapist, leads the center, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in leadership to continually improve her advocacy. Her passion for supporting victims is evident, and she seeks team members who share her dedication. “This is a passion project,” she emphasizes.

Craig expressed her gratitude to her team and the Chapter Organization CAC of Tennessee in Nashville. Although they do not conduct forensic interviews or trial preparations, they do help organize and coordinate funding, as well as support each district in their functions and work. All districts are members of the Chapter Organization as they assist each with federal level changes for laws and actions to be taken.

With her degree, Craig has the capacity to work across all areas of the CAC. This allows her to free up time for others to undergo training and navigate the hiring process while simultaneously overseeing the maintenance and development of administrative functions within the offices. Craig also personally initiated forensic interviews while managing the opening of the new offices and carrying out administrative duties. In addition, she recruited a full-time forensic interviewer and continued to work part-time, serving as a victim advocate until she could secure a full-time advocate. She maintains a diverse workload, contributing to various aspects of the team’s operations to ensure a balanced and supportive environment.

Craig is also eager to engage with school systems, offering voluntary and free seminars and community classes to be featured in school bulletins. Chief Deputy Gene Hargis, the fundraising chair, is looking to collaborate with school superintendents, though specific details weren’t provided. Importantly, their commitment to community outreach extends beyond schools, with the organization willing to conduct workshops in any sufficiently large space. “Any organization that is willing to let us come in and have any amount of time, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour, it doesn’t matter.” Craig continued, “Even 15 minutes of quick statistics and education to teach somebody ‘trust your gut’ could make a huge difference.” According to Craig, a recent 15-minute talk with 8- to 10-year-old children resulted in an allegation, arrest, and conviction of a perpetrator connected to one of the children.

Anyone with the passion for helping victims and advocating for better support of victims are encouraged to contact Craig or Hargis for ways to get involved and volunteer or become board members. Craig emphasizes the need for “feet to the ground” to continue making a difference. Contact Kelli Craig at (423) 443-7431 and Deputy Gene Hargis at (423) 942-2525.

The Marion Tribune – October 5, 2023