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Ellis County’s Gingerbread House

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Defending those too small to defend themselves
Sherry Long
The Ellis County Press

ELLIS COUNTY - Imagine after being sexual assaulted, sitting alone in a dark and cold institutional police facility, recounting the most horrifying moments of your life while in the midst of police officers and handcuffed criminals.

Now imagine being a young girl under 10 years of age.

Members of Waxahachie and Ellis County's social services and legal and law enforcement agencies decided in 1999, after a young girl was interviewed numerous times after her sexual assault, something must be done to provide young

victims a safe, secure environment in which to give their statements.

The Ellis County Children's Advocacy Center, a private non-profit organization was born to serve as a safe place for severely physical and sexually abused children in Ellis County, as young as four-to-17-years-old, to provide a secure, child friendly facility where children can provide law enforcement information needed to capture their alleged perpetrators.

The center only deals with the victims and their non-offending family.

To became a more child-and-family-friendly office, the center was recently renamed The Gingerbread House.

According to Gingerbread House Executive Director John Wyckoff, the center's goal is to interview the child one time only.

'The best place to interview this child, that has been abused sexually or severely physical, is away from law enforcement,' he said.

A trained interviewer at the center conducts interviews.

Gingerbread House Forensic Interviewer Amanda Livingston feels the center is a 'mutual ground' area for law enforcement, Child Protective Services and District Attorney's offices to continue working as a team to combat childhood abuse.

Victims and their families are more relaxed at the center, making it less traumatic for the victim to give their account of the abuse they have suffered.

Stuffed animals of every size, shape, style and color adorn the center's walls, shelves and crevices. The center allows kids to watch videos, play with toys, or color and draw in coloring books.

Children are instantly disarmed, feeling safe and secure upon walking into the center.

After an interview, children, regardless of age, are allowed to pick a stuffed animal of their choice.

All interviews are videotaped to provide the Ellis County District Attorney's office tapes for prosecution of offenders.

Ellis County District Attorney Joe Grubbs thinks taping the interviews are a real asset; victims do not need to repeat their stories over and over.

Tapes remain the sole property of the DA.

'The real goal is that justice is done,' said Grubbs.

The Gingerbread House only handles cases within Ellis County.

'These are local people having these problems,' said Wyckoff.

One hundred and sixty-four interviews were handled in the 2002 fiscal year. The center has already performed 71 interviews since September 2002.

The Gingerbread House will conduct a projected 180-200 interviews this year (an 82% increase), according to Wyckoff.

Wyckoff attributes the population boom of Ellis County and the increased awareness of the Gingerbread House directly to the steep increase in interviews.

Center statistics indicate 90 percent of all interviews handled by the center are sexual abuse cases. 98 percent of children know their alleged perpetrators, with men being the most common perpetrators. Female victims accounted for 81 percent of all cases reported.

The Texas Baptist Home for Children has provided The Gingerbread House office space, rent and utility free, until the center can obtain its own location.

Wyckoff hopes to open an in-house therapy division to assist victims and their non-offending family members work through group therapy sessions so they see they are not alone in this dilemma.

'We want to get these peer groups, (so) these mothers can come to group therapy and talk...,' he said.

Children's Advocacy Centers of Texas Inc, based in Austin, monitors all children's advocacy centers in Texas.

Before individuals are eligible to become Forensic Interviewers, they must begin a five-step training program provided by CACTX.

The CACTX distributes funds to the various centers after obtaining funding from state lawmakers. Each center is required to apply for a grant through the CAC.

Funding for the center is provided by Ellis County, the cities of Ennis, Waxahachie, Midlothian and CACTX. Fundraisers are held throughout the year to assist the center operating costs.

Law enforcement motorcycle club Blue Knights Texas XXI will host the first annual Gingerbread Run March 29 at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis.

The event is open to all motorcycle riders whether being a law enforcement officer or pleasure rider. Pre-registration is available. For more information, contact Ken or Sandy Reeves at 972-938-9226 or view their website http://vipersites.com/TX21.

The summer before his senior year in high school, John Wyckoff worked as a counselor for a local orphanage.

'I loved it - I just loved it,' he said. He has been involved with non-profit agencies his entire career.

Wyckoff began working at the Texas State Mental Hospital in Terrell.

After nine years, he became assistant director for the Downtown Dallas Family Shelter and finally began working at an Autistic Center in Plano as a Certificated Operating Officer.

After a heart attack in Dec. 1999, he desired to be closer to his wife Roxanne and young son, Conner, and took over as the executive director of The Gingerbread House in 2001.

Contributions may be made to The Gingerbread House, P.O. Box 2838, Waxahachie, TX 75168.

Those interested in obtaining more information on the center or volunteering can call 972-937-1870.

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