Some are as young as 1 or 2 years old. A few are as old as 15.
But they come through the doors of the Dr. Bill Lewis Center for Children with stories that share common themes.
A 10-year-old girl told about six years of molestations she suffered at the hands of a middle-aged man she knew.
Another girl, 11, talked about the time an 18-year-old man tried to pull down her underwear and have sex with her after they drove a car around a motorcycle track.
One 12-year-old boy was given an air-soft gun and cash to keep quiet about the sexual abuse he endured.
Children with stories like these are coming to the center – a place where potential child abuse victims from the region are interviewed by forensic specialists – more frequently now.
We’ve definitely seen an increase from last year, said Bobbi Golani, the center’s program director. We’ve opened a second interview room in response to an increasing need. It’s busy.
The reason for the increase can only be guessed at, according to those involved at the center.
Is it because the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State has made child abuse easier to talk about? Is it because more people know about the center? Is it because there is more awareness of child abuse? Is it because child abuse becomes more prevalent in hard economic times?
But the numbers indicate that total interviews conducted this year at the center – which caters to northeast Indiana – are up 10 percent over last year and that interviews involving Allen County children have risen 40 percent.
There are multiple reasons (for the rise), Golani said. And they’re probably all true.
‘Can happen here’
Originally opened in 2000 and named the Child Advocacy Center of Fort Wayne, officials at the Bill Lewis Center for Children on East State Boulevard tout it as a safe, neutral place to talk.
Children who come to the center – a nonprofit funded by private and corporate donations – are placed in a room with an interviewer.
In another room, a team of specialists from multiple agencies wears headsets while watching on closed-circuit television and can feed questions to the interviewer.
The team can then review videotape of the interview.
The idea is that it will save the child from multiple interviews, Golani said.
Interviews are usually set up when law enforcement or a child protective agency refers a potential victim to the center, and specially trained forensic interviewers are on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards heads up the center’s board of directors. Nearly every child, 12 years old or younger, who might be a child abuse victim is referred to the center, she said.
And while acknowledging an increase in interviews being done at the center, Richards couldn’t offer a solid reason.
You know, there’s a part of this that is unknown, she said.
From January through August 2011, the center conducted 407 forensic interviews.
In that same span this year, the number of total interviews rose 12 percent, to 459.
The number of interviews involving Allen County children rose from 125 in 2011 to 176 in 2012 during that time.
That spike came as national media coverage began to swirl around Penn State University, where former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was accused of sexually abusing children for years, sometimes in the showers of an athletic facility on the school’s campus.
Sandusky last week was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison for multiple counts of child molesting.
The extensive coverage might have contributed to the increase in interviews at the local center, according to Golani, its program director.
I think with the media, it validated that these things are real and that they go on, and they can happen here Golani said of the Penn State coverage. I believe adults are listening.
But both Golani and Richards were quick to point out that officials have tried to get the word out to law enforcement agencies that the center is here for anyone who may need to be interviewed.
Richards said DeKalb County authorities are among those using the center more.
We’ve been contacting prosecutors and police, and we’ve been doing fundraisers, Richards said. We do know we’re getting the message out that the center exists.
Still, there are other theories for the increase.
Released this month, a study by a team of researchers from the Yale School of Medicine found that rates of children and adolescents younger than 18 being admitted to hospitals for abuse-related injuries rose nearly 5 percent from 1997 through 2009.
Another study released last year by researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh indicated that more children were being brought to the hospital as the country’s recession began to take hold in 2008 and 2009.
I guess you could say, in economic hard times, people handle stress in different ways, Golani said. When things are rough and money is tight, domestic violence goes up and rates of sexual abuse go up, so that’s a possibility.
But another possibility is that the public is more educated about child abuse today, both Richards and Golani said.
Local agencies such as Stop Child Abuse Now are offering a multitude of services for families, they said. Schools are becoming proactive in letting children know there are adults they can go to if things are happening at home.
As a result, more and more children are coming forward.
The stigma of being a victim is dying, Golani said. Children are more comfortable sharing what has happened to them, and her center is providing a place where people who will help can listen.
If it’s happened to you, it’s OK to tell, Golani said.
And that’s the ultimate message Golani and her colleagues are trying to get out.
Whether it’s through educational programs or national news stories, they want everyone to know it’s OK to come forward.
It’s OK to admit you were abused.
At the Bill Lewis Center, Golani said, it’s safe to do so.