HAMILTON - He was 5 years old and the eyes of everyone in the courtroom were upon him.

Fidgeting on the witness stand, the boy seemed to revel in the attention as lawyers peppered him with questions about the man who molested him in the summer of 2009.

With his attention bouncing between lawyers, the judge and an urge to make loud noises with the microphone, the boy didn't skip a beat when the defense attorney asked if everything he'd testified to was true.

"No," the boy replied.

The next day, the state agreed to accept a plea bargain that dropped most the charges against the man.

"It really was unfair in many ways," said Deb Eckheart, a Ravalli County victim's advocate. "He just didn't understand. ... The questions he was asked weren't developmentally appropriate for a 5-year-old."

To the outside world, Eckheart said, it must have seemed like the boy didn't know what he was talking about.

"It was so unfortunate it ended the way it did," she said. "There was no chance to educate anyone on that jury about how a case like this all comes together."

Eckheart is a member of the interdisciplinary team at Emma's House - Ravalli County's children advocacy center. Since 2006, the small white house on Hamilton's Second Street has provided a safe setting for children to tell their stories.

That small group has been busy this past year.

"The number of children we have seen has almost doubled since last year," said Val Widmer, director of Emma's House.

Last year, 56 children had been interviewed at the facility by this point in the year. So far this year, the number is 89.

Widmer thinks the word has spread about what Emma's House offers.

"I think people are coming here now because they know of the quality of service we provide," she said. "The overriding goal of all children's advocacy centers is to ensure that children are not further victimized by the system that was designed to protect them."

***

In the old days, a child who had suffered through assault would be interviewed any number of times by law enforcement officers and others. The process could be traumatic.

At Emma's House, children tell their story once and to the same person in a child-friendly setting.

"We pride ourselves in the fact that everyone who does forensic interviews at Emma's House is well trained," Widmer said. "They learn from the best schools in the country. We believe that's important."

A good forensic interviewer uses techniques that don't lead or suggest.

"It's a neutral fact-finding interview," Widmer said. "They ask open-ended questions then narrow in to elicit a narrative from the child."

Sometimes defense attorneys or others raise the question of whether a child has been coached.

All the interviews at Emma's House are documented with videotape.

"The knowledge some of these children have is way beyond their years," Widmer said. "It's very compelling. They would not have this knowledge without something happening."

In many cases, youngsters don't want to tell.

They may be worried about getting themselves or someone else in trouble. In some cases, the offender is still inside the home.

"Often, if a family member is involved, they don't want to see that person go away," Eckheart said.

Members of the Emma's House team also help families cope. They offer counseling and other support.

Their efforts have been noticed.

A couple of weeks ago, the center received a $90,000 grant from the Cincinnati-based Chemed Corp. to help implement a new mental health program.

Another benefactor has offered a million dollar endowment if the center can raise $250,000 by 2015. So far, people in the community had offered $80,000 toward that goal.

There are currently five children's advocacy centers in Montana. Hamilton's is the only one not located in a law enforcement building or a hospital.

"This is a community that takes its responsibility to address this important issue," Widmer said. "It's a community that wants to hold people accountable and protect its kids."

Ravalli Republic reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300, ext. 30, or at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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