COMMUNITY HEROES: Tri-Cities forensic interviewer gives voice to abused children

ABC Tri-Cities
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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) She plays a vital role in the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases.

On a mission to combat child abuse forensic interviewer, Carey Lewis, is part of a team at the Children’s Advocacy Center, in Johnson City, providing a child-friendly environment for abused children to have their voices heard.

Lewis has performed more than 3,000 forensic interviews in the last eight years with abused children at the CAC.

The center covers Carter, Washington, Johnson and Unicoi Counties.

“It’s hard to tell that story, so a lot of times when they come in, they are very stressed. Normally, by the time they leave, there’s some level of relief. Sometimes, though, we have to do what is called an “extended forensic interview” because the child might not be ready the first time that they come here to disclose, so we may have to do an additional forensic interview,” Samantha Prater said.

Prater is the executive director for the CAC.

“Since January of this year, we have received over 650 referrals. Of those referrals, We have done over 350 forensic interviews, over 423 mental health sessions, 19 medical exams and the advocacy services are ongiong,” Prater said.

Carey Lewis said, “A forensic interview is really the start of a severe child abuse investigation. When we receive a referral of severe physical abuse, sexual abuse, drug exposure or a witness to a crime, that child will come here for a forensic interview.

During the interview process, Lewis helps facilitate that child’s statement. It is her job to be neutral and to fact-find in cases of severe child abuse.

“The interview can take anywhere from 20 minutes to, the longest one I’ve seen at this point is four hours. Therapy can last four two months, up to years. It’s voluntary, so when the family decides they do not want to continue to come, they do not not have to. Prosecution is probabkly at an average of two years,” Prater said.

Lewis works to fulfill the CAC’s mission of working to improve child abuse investigations by making the process less stressful for children.

“It’s amazing, the difference. Behaviorally. Everything about the child improves,” Prater said.

Lewis said her job is rewarding but there are some challenges to her job.

Lewis said, “Cases don’t go that way for a multitude of reasons. When you can’t prevent that child from being victimized again, when you don’t get that offender off the streets, that’s the challenging part.”

However, she explained the good outweighs the bad.

Lewis said. “To be able to get into therapy and to see those children be resillient and to follow the process to hopefully get some justice for that child and the trauma that they have experienced.”

She gave credit to her team as one of her biggest inspirations.

Lewis said, “The people who really inspire me are the Child Protective Service workers and law enforcement workers that ride along beside us because they’re the ones who are called out in the middle of the night to go help children that are not there on their own. They leave their own families so that they can go and help protect other people’s children. They’re the ones who miss their children’s ball games, and their school programs so that they can go and make sure children are safe, and lots of times, they get a bad rap.”

She said the best advice she has received ones from her dad.

“Find what you a job that you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. For me, this career path has always been that. It’s always been a part of my purpose here earth and God’s calling in my life. It’s never been work for me. It’s always been something that I do,” Lewis said.

“The CAC model began as a way to improve child abuse investigations overall by making the process more efficient, less stressful for the children,” Prater said. “The CAC also provides prevention and education programs for churches, schools and daycares, referencing Tennessee Mandatory Reporting, abuse awareness and good touch, bad touch.”

Prater shared with Pheben Kassahun that the center opened in 2000. It added an onsight medical room in 2004, added a forensic interviewer in 2006, and added a full-time therapist in 2016.

The CAC will have served abused children for 20 years, next year. Its team consists of a trained forensic interviewer, clinical director, medical exams and advocacy services.

There will be a celebration in 2020. Updates can be found on the center’s Facebook page.

The center works with law enforcement, mental health specialists, medical staff, juvenile court staff, the district attorney’s office and child protector services investigators.

If you know someone who makes our community a better place to live, we want to hear from you! Nominate them to be an ABC Tri-Cities Community Hero! Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to nominate them.

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