New home for Emma’s House officially dedicated

BITTERROOT STAR - MICHAEL HOWELL

Emma’s House, the Bitterroot Valley’s Children’s Advocacy Center, held a ribbon cutting at its new location on North 4th Street in Hamilton last Friday. 

“We realized about four years ago an expansion project was on the horizon,” said Director Val Widmer at last week’s ceremony. She said they were focusing upon an option to buy a lot and build a new facility when this building became an option.

“We jumped at the opportunity,” said Widmer, “because it fit all our needs and was more cost effective than buying a lot and building from scratch.”

Governor Steve Bullock was on hand to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony.

“I want to thank Governor Bullock,” said Widmer, “for his commitment to kids ever since he was Attorney General. His support of our work across the state with the Children’s Advocacy Centers has been incredible and it continued on into his tenure as Governor of our state. So we feel very honored to have you here today.”

Brenda George, Executive Director of Children’s Alliance of Montana, said that 27 Children’s Advocacy Centers and Child Forensic Interview programs were operating around the state. Emma’s House was one of 10 that have been accredited.

“That’s quite a feat,” said George. “In rural communities, it’s often hard to find medical and mental health providers. Being an accredited center in a rural community is amazing.” Emma’s House is one of 800 accredited Child Advocacy Centers across the country.

Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton said, “This facility and what they’ve done for us over the years is a big deal. The resource and investigative help that they give us in investigating these kinds of crimes is unbelievable and Val has been a large part of that and often doesn’t take the credit she deserves.”

County Attorney Bill Fulbright said that over the last decade a community wide, unified response to allegations of sexual and physical abuse of kids has grown up in Ravalli County.

“Some of you may remember the day Attorney General Bullock made a visit to Hamilton and sat with the Multi-Disciplinary Team and talked about what we were building here, the foundation of a children’s advocacy group, an MDT, that brings together a number of agencies and disciplines in one spot to deal with child abuse in a unified approach,” said Fulbright. “The MDT includes law enforcement from the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office and the Hamilton Police Department, Child and Family Services, the County Attorney’s Office, Mental Health, Victims Advocacy, and Emma’s House.”

He said what came out of the talks was “a tremendous focus on kids throughout his time as Attorney General and it has carried on with the formation of statewide training for forensic interviews, a specialized way to interview children.

“You can feel the passion he has when we get together, we talk about our kids, our families. He’s a family guy and it’s something you can tell is close to his heart. I’m happy to set aside the political stuff and we can just talk about the kids and things going on with the kids,” said Fulbright.

For his part, Governor Bullock said that when one of his aides informed him about the ribbon cutting and said that he would send the standard letter, “I said no.”

“This community and this House has taught me so much,” said Bullock. He said it was at that meeting with the multi-disciplinary team in Ravalli County that the idea was born to create a statewide child advocacy program. 

“It was done by talking about what we could do to make sure that if a child goes through what is doubtless the most challenging and horrific moment of their life, that we are not putting that child on a path to further victimization and are putting that child on a path to healing,” said Bullock.

He recalled the profound respect which the MDT group showed for Val Widmer and her efforts and said it made him want to stand up and be a part of the process.

“These early experiences shaped the way I think about our criminal justice system and what we could do for our kids,” said Bullock. “Whether you are an educator, a banker, or a governor, whatever role you play, the most important responsibility we have is to make sure every single child has a chance to grow and prosper. We also know that not every kid is born into the lottery of life and even those that are can sometimes end up in a position, by no fault of their own, that most of us could not even dream about. 

“The most important thing that we can do,” he said, “is invest in and protect and support our children and know darn well that you have something in your community that we can all be proud of. And I want to thank you for letting me be a part of it.”

Emma’s House has grown significantly over the last several years. It served 17 children in 2006, its first year in operation. Last year 125 children used the services.

The facility provides forensic interviews, child abuse specific medical exams (on-site), and trauma-focused counseling for children and their non-offending caregivers (also on-site). The forensic interview is video-recorded, and subsequently provided to the investigative agency (law enforcement or Child and Family Services), which initiates an investigation. This process eliminates the need for the child to be interviewed at the police station, which to many children is very intimidating.

Prior to Emma’s House, child victims of abuse often had to disclose up to nine times, to multiple professionals, the trauma that had occurred. The Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) model minimizes the trauma to the child by eliminating the need for multiple interviews and providing a warm child-friendly home-like setting. One forensic interview is conducted that is legally sound and developmentally appropriate, which oftentimes becomes critical evidence if a case goes to court. Widmer is hoping to get some more help soon. At present, she is the only one qualified to perform the forensic interviews.

“The goal is to have a streamlined process in which traumatized children only have to talk one time to one professional and not have to go through repeated interrogations,” said Widmer. The one-time interview is then shared with all the other agencies that are involved. 

“The system is not perfect, but it is so much better than what was happening before,” said Widmer. “We are just proud of how far we’ve come and how much we are working together here for the kids.”

Joni Lubke