story and photos by Kim Souza
What better place to change the world, saving one child at a time, than Northwest Arkansas. That’s what Michael Johnson, longtime child abuse advocate from Irving, Texas, said while touring the newly completed Melba Shewmaker Southern Region National Child Protection Training Center (NCPTC) on the campus of NorthWest Arkansas Community College on Thursday (Feb. 6).
Johnson, a former law enforcement officer in Dallas and now serving as the child protection director for Boy Scouts of America, joined dozens of other child abuse advocates celebrating two years of dedicated commitment to get the $3 million, 16,534-square-foot training center up and running. The center is equipped with two mock courtrooms, staged residence areas, interactive video and classrooms and training space.
“I am beaming from ear to ear like a very proud mama,” said Beverly Engle, executive director at Children's Advocacy Center of Benton County.
Engle has spent much of her career raising awareness of child abuse and was a leader in pushing for the new training center that will serve a 16-state region.
STRONG ARMY READY TO FIGHT
“We have all heard it takes a village a raise a child, but it takes an army to rescue one. This outpouring today and over the past two years to get this center open is evidence of a very strong army ready to fight,” Engle said.
Victor Vieth, executive director emeritus of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, said he remembers well the call he got from Engle a few years ago begging him to bring his message and advocacy work to Arkansas.
“When I ask David and Beverly Engle why Arkansas, she told me that God wanted me here,” Vieth told the crowd at the opening ceremony.
He said the building, as grand as it is, can’t be the purpose of this mission.
“It’s not a home, not a business, not a landmark, it’s so much more … While it will train hundreds, thousands of law enforcement officers, reporters, court officials and child advocates, training can’t be the core purpose. While it will no doubt bring sweeping reforms, new laws and protocol regarding child abuse … the main purpose has to be the collective labor to end child abuse because anything less is unacceptable,” Vieth said.
He remembered early meetings with Dr. Becky Panietz, NWACC board trustees and Engle telling him there was no money, no land, no building but there was a lot of heart, people who shared his dream and they believed the rest would come.
“I see so many snapshots in my memory of what it took to make this center happen. I remember the call from Amy Benincosa, (associate director of development for NWACC Foundation). She told me that Melba Shewmaker had just left her office and wanted to know when the center was going be finished because the children had suffered long enough,” Vieth said.
Shewmaker was the lead donor for the $3 million raised to renovate the former Highlands Oncology Building into the a functional training center that bears her name in the title. Dozens of other patrons helped with financial and professional contributions and many of those names appear throughout the building.
The bronze statute of children riding a turtle out in front of the building was a personal donation of Shewmaker as well. Dan Shewmaker, her son and NWACC board trustee, told the group he suggested that his mom give the bronze turtle which was part of her private collection.
“It took a while to get her to give up her beloved turtle, but she did it because she loves children,” he said.
REMEMBERING THE 'SHADOW' CHILDREN
Standing front and center in one of three mock trial rooms in the spacious training center, Vieth thanked Shewmaker and dozens of others for sharing the dream. He then shared a story of a young woman he met while speaking on child abuse in New York a few years ago. He said she approached him the day after the event in the hotel hallway and told him she was that girl.
“I didn’t understand, but she said she sneaked into the back of the room where I was talking about child abuse and that had been her life. She told me of struggles with alcoholism and depression and on more than one occasion had attempted suicide. She told me she spoke out about the abuse as a child, but no one, not one listened. And one of reforms that we spreading across the country at National Child Protection Center could have spared her the decades of anguish suffered,” Vieth said.
The young lady told him she would pray for the center’s work everyday for the rest of her life. She then took his hand and asked Vieth to remember her.
“I remember, she is one of the shadow children in our country who long to hear that is safe to come out,” Vieth said.
THE TINY THANK YOU
After the community college began offering courses on child abuse advocacy a years ago, several hundred professionals have received training at the temporary facility on the NWACC campus. Classes began meeting in the new center in January.
Stephanie Smith, southern regional director of the National Child Protection Training Center, said the center’s opening represents another step forward in the fight to safeguard America’s children from all forms of maltreatment.
“In this building, those who protect children today will have the opportunity to hone their skills and stay up to date on the ever-changing face of child maltreatment,” Smith said. “College students who intend to follow these current professionals into the field will learn, in their educational life, what their predecessors spent several hard-fought and painful years learning ‘on the job.’”
Smith expects to train about 600 people a year, she said.
Each year approximately 1 million children are confirmed as victims of abuse and neglect. Last year 33,353 Arkansas children were referred for maltreatment assessments, according to the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services. The Crimes Against Children Division of the state police handled 5,549 child abuse referrals.
Engle said a tiny thank you, scribbled on a shining star posted on the wall at the child advocacy center is all it takes to keep her grounded and focused on this mission.
“This child had just been through a forensic exam on abuse allegations and all she wanted to do was say thank you,” Engle said. “The training, the work to change laws and even great buildings like this one, have to take a back seat to the child. We have to listen.”