In the Tri-State area, there’s a devastating problem that, too often, goes undiscussed: children who are sexually abused.
For the victims who are able to come forward, Hope’s Place in Ashland tries to be the bright spot in their lives after a shattering situation.
“We served over 400 kids last year,” said Lisa Phelps, executive director of Hope’s Place.
Hope’s Place is a child advocacy center that helps sexual abuse victims from five Kentucky counties (Boyd, Greenup, Lawrence, Carter and Elliott), as well as Lawrence County, Ohio.
“It’s day in and day out of traumatic and terrible stories and working with kids that have been through things we can’t even imagine that humans would do to anybody, let alone a child,” said Phelps.
A group of local citizens and advocates started Hope’s Place 20 years ago out of a small house in Ashland. They were concerned with how child sex abuse cases were handled – shuffling victims around to multiple places, forcing them to relive the traumatic experience over and over again. The group wanted to put all the services victims needed in one location and created Hope’s Place.
Now, Hope’s Place has grown into a larger facility, where the staff is transforming how child victims rebuild their lives. They provide a variety of services, including sexual assault medical exams, forensic interviews, and trauma-focused therapy.
Hope’s Place has transformed how child victims rebuild their lives – bringing together a variety of services into one place… from medical exams and forensic interviews… to groundbreaking therapy methods and tools to prepare them for court. innovative
They offer tools to help make a scary situation easier, such as a miniature courtroom model that can shift to fit each county’s actual courtroom.
“The figures have happy faces and sad faces, because we want children to be as prepared as possible, because there might be some sad faces in court,” said Phelps.
They offer a variety of sensory experiences to help children cope with trauma, including a dimly-lit sensory room with colorful bubble tubes and gel floor tiles.
“Those are the developmental, formative years,” said Dr. Jessica Wilson, medical director of Hope’s Place. “They’re growing and as they go forward, it helps them cope with drama that they have experienced.”
The counselors use innovative therapy techniques, including art therapy and sandtray therapy, to help children express their emotions and process the pain.
During sandtray therapy, kids are encouraged to pick from a collection of figurines and create a representation of their life. For example, a child may choose a dragon to represent their perpetrator, and after awhile, they may eventually bury the dragon in the sand.
The impact goes well beyond childhood, though. Since 2015, Hope’s Place has seen the total number of cases they handle, including adults coming forward, more than double. This year, Phelps says Hope’s Place is on pace to provide about 900 counseling sessions for survivors.
“We’ve seen a really large increase in adults, young adults presenting for mental health treatments for abuse that happened in their younger years,” said Phelps, who believes recent sexual assault scandals have encouraged more victims to come forward.
Despite the caseload growing at Hope’s Place, funding for the non-profit hasn’t grown with it.
“They’re pumping a ton of money into the opioid crisis, which is awesome, we need that help, but unfortunately the impact of that is the other mental health specialties kind of get pushed aside,” said Phelps.
Hope’s Place has recently struggled to hire additional qualified mental health providers, because they’re unable to compete with the salaries offered in the substance abuse field, according to Phelps.
But for those behind closed doors, fighting to help kids cope with a painful situation, providing hope is the only option.
“You just want to be a bright spot in their life,” said Dr. Wilson.
The topic may be difficult, but Hope’s Place urges parents to often have open discussions with their children about proper body part names, as well as anyone that makes them feel uncomfortable.