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Advocacy center asks for funding

A local children’s group that helps young abuse victims havetheir day in court is facing harsh financial constraints and isturning to area counties for help.

Representing the McComb-based Southwest Mississippi Children’sAdvocacy Group, district attorney Dee Bates stood before LincolnCounty supervisors Tuesday “hat in hand,” delivering the county’sfirst appropriation request of the summer budgeting season. Thecenter, which helps law enforcement by recording forensicinterviews of abused children, is reeling from federal funding cutsand is asking supervisors to contribute $10,000 from the county’supcoming fiscal year 2011 budget to help it continue its importantlegal services.

“These are funds that are desperately needed,” Bates said. “(CAC)is on the edge of potentially going under. If we have to go outsidethe area to Jackson or Hattiesburg, they would charge us.”

Since the beginning of 2010, CAC has assisted area law enforcementagencies on 27 cases of child abuse, breaking down to 25 cases ofsexual abuse and two cases of physical abuse, Bates said. The groupasks non-leading questions to abused children treated at thecenter, making audio and video recordings of the testimony to beused as evidence in court.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s a child’s word against anadult’s word, and that video is so important,” Bates said.

But cuts to the federal Victims of Crime Act will detract around$33,000 from the non-profit group next year that could be fatal ifnot countered, said Lori Tate, executive director of CAC. She saidthe organization has already laid off one case manager andtransferred another employee to adjust to the funding cut.

“We have done in-house all we know to do,” Tate said.

Tate pointed out Pike County contributes $18,000 annually fromcounty funds, but Lincoln County does not contribute. CAC hasserved Lincoln County for 10 years, since 2000. The group is hopingsupervisors will chip in $10,000 – one-third of the total lost -and efforts are being made to secure more appropriations fromaround the center’s 12-county district.

CAC does not charge local law enforcement for its services, and thecounty saves an average of $2,000 per case when the group’srecorded interviews are presented as evidence in court, Tate said.Often, there is no court when CAC steps in.

“If there’s a trial, the child will have to testify, but a lot oftimes when you see that 4- or 5-year-old child on the video, a pleabargain is entered,” she said.

Board attorney Bob Allen, helping explain the details of CAC tosupervisors, said the forensic interviews supplant interviews thatwould otherwise be conducted by local law enforcement, who oftenaren’t adequately trained to question abused children.

“If you don’t have a group such as this, quite often the interviewsdon’t end up asking the questions you need asked,” he said.

Supervisors agreed to take CAC’s request under advisement whilebudget work continues throughout the summer. The county budget mustbe completed by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.

The Southwest Mississippi Children’s Advocacy Center was one of thefirst but won’t be the last organization that calls on supervisorsfor an appropriation this summer. July is when supervisors normallybegin hearing about 20 such requests per year.

Some organizations are already on the county’s help list, but roomfor new requests may be slim this year. Supervisors are planning tohold their budget at around $15 million for the third straightyear, and the possibility of cutting every county department by 10percent has been mentioned.