In a nondescript building above Kuakini Highway sits the Children’s Justice Center of West Hawaii. Here, in rooms with hand-drawn pictures in thin frames and a two-way mirror on one wall, a forensic investigator interviews children who have been abused or otherwise victimized, or who have witnessed a crime.
On Monday, blue and silver pinwheels adorned the metal fence surrounding the center’s front door, a reminder that April marks Child Abuse Awareness Month. Center employees joined representatives of the Hawaii Police Department, the state’s probation office, Catholic Charities Hawaii, Child Welfare Services and other agencies to celebrate the awareness event.
“Working on these cases, it isn’t easy,” Program Director Maggie Thorpe said. “I know you are helping kids. That’s the important thing.”
The Children’s Justice Center, which has several locations across the state, has served more than 30,000 children since the first office opened in 1988. Its staff assist with criminal and child protective service investigations of abuse and other crimes committed against children, Thorpe said. The center now employs a forensic investigator, who is specially trained in a Hawaii-based model of interviewing victimized children. The interview style, which includes a lot of narrative, starting broad, general questions that eventually narrow down to more specific inquiries, is important to help children open up, Thorpe said.
“If the child’s not comfortable, they’re not going to relax,” she said.
Investigators make audio and video recordings of the interviews, in the hopes that the information gleaned in the more personal, child-friendly setting can be used in court and can keep the victimized child from having to make a court appearance, Thorpe said.
More West Hawaii residents need to know about who the community’s mandated reporters are, she said, referring to people whose professional status requires them to report any incident of suspected child abuse. It’s hard to make such a report in a small community, she said.
“People are afraid of a lack of confidentiality,” Thorpe said. “People here are well-schooled in keeping kids’ identity secured.”
Child advocates in Hawaii also have a goal of keeping children who may be the victim of abuse in their homes, Thorpe said. In many cases, the offender is removed and, if the family is interested in reuniting, is offered classes and programs to help him or her be able to return home.
Thorpe would also like to see more people be able to recognize the signs of child abuse. To that end, the Children’s Justice Center is creating an informational video.
Hawaii Island does have some parenting classes available, Thorpe said. She encouraged even grandparents who have been given custody of grandchildren to take those classes, because many parenting and disciplinary practices that were acceptable in the past may longer be so.
Parents seeking information on support services may call the Parent Line, a confidential line that offers support and information to parents and other care givers, at 800-816-1222. To report suspected child abuse and neglect, the Child Protective Services hot line is 800-832-5300. In the case of an immediate threat of violence, people are encouraged to contact the police by calling 911.