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Young Auditorium

Tree House a kid's safe house

June 03, 2014 | 05:04 PM
ELKHORN — “When a child comes in here and discloses the worst thing that has ever happened to them and we make them feel so comfortable and they feel the warmth of this place and know they’ll get the help … that’s rewarding.”

That’s a quote from Paula Hocking, manager of the Tree House in Elkhorn — a place of safety and healing for children of abuse in all its different forms.

The Tree House recently celebrated its first anniversary, which corresponded with Child Abuse Prevention month.

As soon as the Tree House was built, and the organizers walked in “I knew at that time, we did it right,” said Sandy Wagel-Troemel, president of the board.

The warm, well-lit entrance is the first place a child enters.

“By the time a family leaves here, the child doesn’t want to leave,” Hocking said. “It’s the best feeling. It keeps us going.”

Hocking is a forensics interviewer and usually the first person who interviews those who come to the Tree House. Most forensics interviewers burn out in a matter of months. But Paula has lasted 24 years.

The abuse they deal with covers a wide gamut: Neglect, sexual emotional and physical abuse, drug endangered children, parents using drugs such as heroin — kids living in toxic environments. In 2012 there were 1,328 referrals and 311 children received forensic interviews.

After a child arrives, he or she goes into another room, called the family room, that’s locked for privacy and designed as a safe place. There are toys, Nintendo Wii, coloring books and other diversions.

Sometimes the children are so comfortable there that they fall asleep.

Children are interviewed in a room that’s intentionally dull, so a child focuses on the issue at hand and answers questions without having their attention diverted.

As Hocking interviews them, other people are watching on monitors in other rooms.

In the past, children had to go through a series of people — school counselors, principals, and the police. Each time the victims of abuse had to tell her or his story over again, reliving the often horrible details.

This way, they’re only talking to one person, but others get the information they need to help.

“The first few minutes they remember there’s a camera,” Hocking said. “Then they forget it.”

The Tree House medical room is the most unique.

Hocking calls it the “healing room.” There’s a shower for those who need or want it. The Tree House waiting room was the first of its kind to have a television in the room.

Sometimes the very youngest children are curious about their bodies and the doctors can explain things on the screen. Or, they can just watch a TV show.

So much of the healing room is dedicated to soothing the emotional wounds.

“Besides the medical component, there’s child advocacy,” Hocking said. “Some kids think their bodies will never heal.”

Doctors have even given pregnancy tests to very young boys who don’t understand the reproductive process and think they may be pregnant.

“Once a doctor says you’re going to be OK — that’s the first step in healing,” Hocking said.

“So much heart was put into this building,” Hocking said.

“The community built this center,” Wagle-Troemel said.

But they’re going to need to expand.

Deputy District Attorney Josh Grube, who does most of the abuse prosecutions for the county, gets high marks from Hocking.

“People don’t know, but we prosecute to the fullest degree,” Hocking said.

“We have a great relationship with the police officers,” added Bridget Six, who is on the Tree House executive board.

All the agencies work together Hocking said to figure out: “What is in the best interest of the child and how do we make that happen?”

“We don’t want to hear how we can’t do it,” Hocking said. “We want to hear how we can do it.”

The group is always trying to keep up with trends. Heroin use, for instance, has become a huge issue in recent years, Hocking said.

“We’re constantly making small steps to have a big impact,” Hocking said.

“Child abuse has been going on since the beginning of time,” Hocking said, but now the avenues for abuse are even worse in this electronic age.


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