The world isn’t always fair or kind, but nonprofits like the Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center help to make a positive impact in the direst of times in a child’s life.
“The Children’s Advocacy Center is about providing services to children who have been victims of abuse,” says Chief Executive Officer Julia Hurst. “We manage the more egregious types of abuse, which are child sexual abuse, drug endangered children, and severe neglect. The sad thing is, we only see cases that have been reported through the Department of Children and Families hotline or law enforcement. Last year we saw 736 kids, and statistically there is probably two‑thirds more out there that could use our help, so it is really important that people know that piece of it.”
Staggering figures for a nonprofit that only serves Okaloosa and Walton counties. Additional advocacy centers can be found across the states, with each one operating independently.
The Florida abuse hotline is 1‑800‑96‑ABUSE. All calls are confidential, including caller information, and Hurst encourages everyone to report concerns they might have. “What happens, because I get these calls too, is we think something is going on, but we don’t want to be wrong. Our response is that it is not up to you to investigate, that is the job of the Children’s Advocacy Center and of law enforcement. It is not your job to decide whether or not it happened, and people struggle with that. However, that phone call could change the life of a child.”
ECCAC has operated out of Niceville since it’s inception in 2000. One of its primary roles is to be a safe harbor for the process that occurs after reporting of abuse. “Prior to the center, when a child was a victim of, say, sexual abuse, they would have to go to a lot of different places to get help,” says Hurst. “They would go to one place to tell their story, another place to have medical, they go to another place to talk to the prosecutor, and then another for mental health. So what we have done for the Children’s Advocacy Center is put all of those services under one roof. The goal is to get all the information in one interview so a child only has to tell it one time.”
The location of the center is Niceville was selected to feel child friendly. It’s located in an active neighborhood so it doesn’t present itself as a foreign office space. Hurst explains how greeters, a fish tank and a colorful space all help to make a child feel more comfortable. “The goal with the center is to help reduce the trauma that the child has already gone through and make an environment where they don’t mind coming back. They will have to come back if they are in therapy or if the case is going to go to trial and they need to take depositions.
“Beyond the case work we do and the advocacy—we do a lot of ancillary services for kids like Christmas parties, back‑to‑school bashes—all those things help support a family.”
Two of the newest additions are Riley and Cody, therapy dogs that can often be spotted at the center.
The big news is that a second center will have its grand opening April 8 in DeFuniak Springs. “We have always served both counties from Niceville when we started, and then we decided that we should do an assessment and see if we needed to be in Walton,” says Hurst. “We are very close to making it happen, and it has very much been a community‑minded project. It has been an amazing journey with all of us, and especially the kids we are seeing.”
The ECCAC is always looking for additional volunteers, both at the center itself and as helping hands for upcoming charity events like the Chi Chi Miguel Throwdown Golf Tournament on April 15. Other regular needs include diapers, baby wipes, cookie dough, art supplies for the therapists, and gift cards for clothing stores.
“The center is very thankful for the community,” says Hurst. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do for these kids without it.”
Learn more, volunteer or donate at eccac.org.
‑ Nikki Hedrick
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