Hamilton House provides a world of escape, support

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 514 views 

On the first floor of Mercy Tower in Fort Smith, just past the elevators and a slight turn to the left, there is a simple door cut into the wall. By that door, there is a phone. If you want to move past that door, you must pick up the handset, tell your name, and what your business is.

You’re not getting anywhere if you don’t.

An angry father accused of sexual abuse recently found out that policy the hard way when he showed up at the Hamilton House to see his child, demanding that it was “his right,” despite the accusations against him.

Executive Director Jackie Hamilton makes no apologies.

“Hamilton House is designed to create a sense of safety and security for the children,” Hamilton explains.

Hamilton House is a place where law enforcement, prosecutors, and child protective service case workers investigate abuse allegations in a manner sensitive to the needs of young victims.

When you’re granted access to this place, you find not a boring office, but a world of escape, designed and arranged with a child in mind.

A series of colorful handprints, varying in sizes, adorn the walls. Red and blue and yellow and green. Each handprint represents a child. Each child, a victim.

Off to the right of the entryway, there is a family room that looks like Santa Claus has set up shop inside. Toys and dolls and furniture and bright, cheerful wall murals, give the appearance a six-year old ran point as the interior designer.

Pictures of smiling, happy kids show the ones, who come here, that there is nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of. While at home, the child’s tormentor may live in the next room, here every person is on the child’s side.

From Hamilton herself to Detective Jeff Taylor of the Fort Smith Police Department to forensic interviewers like Laurie Burnett and Tracy Van Kooten, the Hamilton House is a place where even the nightmares can be confronted and talked about. And for the average Fort Smith citizen, the topics that come up in the interview room go well beyond the norm.

Sometimes the children can’t face Burnett and the other interviewers when they’re telling their stories. If they can’t, that’s okay. The child can choose to remain silent, or she can hide behind a chair and let the words and the tears flow.

When asked about the cases that stay with her, Hamilton notes that all leave their marks, but one sticks with her more than most.

A five-year old girl, whose mother had died, was brought to the Hamilton House, a victim of sexual assault from not one or two, but four male assailants. One was the girl’s biological father.

“They had been raping her periodically. She was so specific. She knew who each attacker was, as well as the method of operation. She knew which one raped her anally, orally, vaginally, and knew exactly who did it once and who did it multiple times,” Hamilton said.

Another case that stands out for Hamilton and Detective Taylor is the facility’s youngest patient: a 7-month old baby.

“Case like that, you can’t interview them,” Taylor cuts in. “There, you have to rely on what physical evidence is there.”

For that process, the center has a special piece of equipment called a colposcope, the only one in the state of Arkansas, according to Hamilton. The device can detect abnormal tissue indicative of sexual abuse, basically acting as a microscope and a binocular in one.

“It can detect the warning signs without turning into an invasive procedure,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton leads a task force of specially trained interviewers. Together, they bring the child in, acclimate him or her to a non-threatening environment, and use special procedures known as forensic interviewing techniques, to which victims of child sexual abuse have been proven to respond.

Det. Taylor responds to calls for help and brings the child to the center, or arranges for it. If the call is received after hours, and is an emergency situation, the center will respond with a child advocate, a forensic interviewer, and a nurse.

The father of two, whose “children are pretty much grown now (at ages 20 and 17),” says the job still affects him, though it’s tough to tell by looking at him.

“I’ve got a good support system,” Taylor said.

He’s very much aware one’s ability to work closely with sexually abused children depends on where they are in life.

Taylor continued: “One of our last detectives ended up transferring because he does have young children and couldn’t do it anymore. We’ve had a couple, who couldn’t handle it, and they’ve transferred out to other divisions. One went from here to being an SRO (School Resource Officer) at one of the high schools, because he just wanted to work with kids in a more positive light.”

When Taylor takes time out from being a detective to play with one of the children, Hamilton finds it tough seeing how the work he does is anything but positive.

“I have a wonderful picture of him playing with one of our kids,” Hamilton said, recalling a presentation on the facility she was giving to a group that included Fort Smith Police Chief Kevin Lindsey. “I used that picture, and told Chief Lindsey, this is one of your officers playing dollies. That drew a laugh.”

Sitting with Taylor and Hamilton in the board room of the Hamilton House, the sense of a strong working relationship is prevalent, but look even closer, and see an almost sibling-like relationship that is shared between them and the rest of the workers at the facility.

Hamilton even thinks of Taylor “like a brother,” and the detective returns the favor whenever he can, bringing the workers at the center souvenirs that he feels may blend in with the office decor.

With the Hamilton House averaging two cases of sexual abuse per day since the beginning of 2012 (62 in January alone), the two entities rely on each other for the physical and the emotional support needed to deal with such a sensitive issue.

“Since the center opened, they’ve given us (FSPD) everything we’ve asked for,” Taylor said.

At that moment, Taylor’s phone rings. He takes the call and leaves the room. When he comes back in, he’s looking directly at Hamilton.

“We’ve got two on the way from the hospital. Mom took them in after they disclosed to Mom what Dad’s been doing: 5-year old girl, 9-year old boy.”

In an instant, another day’s average has been met. The time is 9:38 a.m.