Law enforcement found a Wake County elementary student hiding anxiously in his closet while gun shots were fired and after the screams of his siblings and mother eventually fell silent.
“Law enforcement and child protective services referred the child to SAFEchild. The child is now thriving with the family who adopted him,” said Cristin DeRonja, executive director of SAFEchild that serves Wake County.
“SAFEchild stands for Stop Abuse for Every child. Child abuse cuts across all socioeconomic lines, across any religions, ethnicities and people of every education level,” said DeRonja, who has been with SAFEchild for 14 of the agency’s 25 years of eliminating abuse and empowering families.
“Every child has the right to be joyful and to smile and to grow up without significant worries or being scared and fearful of the people who are supposed to love them the most. Children need us help them have a voice, they need us to protect them and they need us to help the adults in their lives do the hardest job any of us is given the opportunity to do.”
Safe Space for Children
SAFEchild is an independent, nonprofit child abuse prevention agency that provides direct prevention and intervention services to more than 8,000 children and families annually. The nationally accredited organization is funded by public and private grants, corporate and individual donations and fundraising events.
SAFEchild was started in 1992 with funding from the Junior League of Raleigh, who is proud to be a part of celebrating SAFEchild’s 25th anniversary.
“In 2010, SAFEchild expanded by opening the SAFEchild Advocacy Center to provide a safe space for children to share their stories and enable the legal system to do its duty of putting perpetrators behind bars,” said Whitney von Haam, executive director of the WCBA who is involved with SAFEchild as board member and through the Junior League.
Children who may have been victims of abuse are referred to the SAFEchild Advocacy Center by law enforcement, the courts, child welfare, the medical community, and the school system.
Children receive a comprehensive medical and developmental evaluation at the SAFEchild Advocacy Center in southeast Raleigh that opened eight years ago.
Twice a month, the Wake County Multidisciplinary Team meets at the advocacy center to review each case. Team members include law enforcement, the DA’s office, the county attorney’s office, child welfare social workers, the school system, the guardian ad litem program, mental health support from Triangle Family Services and medical support from WakeMed.
“We investigate and assess concerns about child abuse. We evaluate the needs of the child in terms of their treatment to heal, their treatment to recover and we discuss as a team what is going to protect this child from being re-traumatized by more trauma than any child should ever experience,” said DeRonja.
“If there is a court-mandated referral to SAFEchild we empower parents to make better decisions moving forward about the safety and welfare of their child. The judicial system here in Wake County knows that if they are able to connect parents to SAFEchild for a parenting class, they can learn ways to be a more protective and appropriate caregiver. Sending the parent to jail isn’t going to provide that,” said DeRonja.
“This is a program the civil courts can refer the victims to. The criminal courts can order the defendants to take an abuser treatment program and SAFEchild provides additional programs to help prevent the impact of domestic violence on children. This provides them with an opportunity to get professional instruction to try to empower them and feel some self-esteem, increase their understanding about domestic violence and the impact it has on their children and to develop parenting skills at Melanie Shekita, Assistant District Attorney, Juan Callado, Wake County Sheriff’s Office Investigator, and Dr. Elizabeth Witman, Medical Director at SAFEchild Advocacy Center. home to minimize and eliminate this in the future,” said Judge Robert Rader, chief district court judge of Wake County.
“How to raise a child is not one size fits all,” said DeRonja. “There are programs for parents of newborns through parents of teens.
“Our primary child abuse prevention strategy is called Welcome Baby which works with about 70 new moms a year. We partner experienced moms with a new mom to help provide objective, neutral guidance and support.
“We have parenting, group-based programs that are like any other class where you go to learn. We find that parents learn a lot from other parents who are experiencing similar challenges that can lead to abuse, such as housing issues, financial problems and employment issues.”
SAFEchild’s program that is provided to the most children is the Funny Tummy Feelings program, which reaches 5,000- 6,000 first graders every year in Wake County. “We empower and educate children about their emotions and how to respond and what to do if something is happening to them that gives them a yucky, funny tummy feeling.”
“We are the lifeline and the hope line to be able to say to a child, ‘You’re gonna be okay.’ This is not your fault. You are the one that’s courageous. You are the one who is brave to share with us experiences that are hard and tough, but will not continue,” said DeRonja.
“Being a part of taking a child out of a moment of crisis and putting them on an upward trajectory to make them feel like a super hero of their own life gives me a peaceful heart.”