Standing Up for Abused Keiki
When a child is abused on Kaua’i, the Children’s Justice Center provides a safe haven, counseling and a guide through the judicial system. For the past decade, Tom French has been in charge
It certainly isn’t a job everyone is cut out to do. But Tom French, program director for the Children’s Justice Center of Kaua’i, has done it for the past decade with passion and fortitude, prerequisites for the kind of work that helps the most innocent of victims deal with the most egregious of crimes: those against children.
French, who retires from his position at CJC Kaua’i this week, says preparing to end his tenure at the facility that he deeply cares for hasn’t been easy, but he’s proud of the integral role he’s played in helping local youths.
“I work here because I think this is the most crucial and important place in the system in the process for intervening,” he says. “It’s a place for children who have nowhere else to go and nothing else other than this process to help them begin to heal and be heard.”
(A search is currently under way to find a replacement.)
For those unaware of the work of CJC Kaua’i, it coordinates a multifaceted response to sexual and/or physical child abuse in a way that aims to cause the least amount of additional trauma to the child. Founded in 1986 as a program under the state of Hawaii Judiciary, it’s a place where children can be interviewed with a double-sided window and obscured viewing room, where trained investigators or psychologists document evidence. It’s also a place where children and their well-being are the priority.
Before the inception of CJC Kaua’i, children would often first tell a teacher or principal about abuse, then have to recount the experience again for police, forensic nurses, doctors, the prosecuting attorney, Child Protective Services investigators and counselors. Now, following the initial report to an adult, CPS and police conduct a joint investigation, and the child only has to recount the incident once.
Friends Of The Children’s Justice Center board president Jalene Huff says French will be missed. The FCJC, a nonprofit, provides support to the CJC, but is a separate entity.
“We are sad to see him leave the position, but we know that he will continue to champion this kind of effort,” Huff says.
Having come to Kaua’i from St. Paul, Minn., when his wife, Sherrylynn, was offered a job as the hospice coordinator for Mahelona, French had for years been a juvenile probation officer before entering the Kaua’i Judiciary as a program specialist for “Kids First,” a program that trains local parents on civility and prioritizing children when going through divorce. A former volunteer for CASA (court appointed special advocates for children), putting children first is something French has always believed in. Following his 21 years of experience in adult probation on the Mainland, it was a welcome change to prioritize children as part of his job.
“The nature of the cases I was used to were strictly criminal cases – pretty cut and dry. You walk in and it’s like two teams, prosecution and defense, and everyone is in uniform. This (the CJC) is different – it’s a civil case by CPS, and any child abuse is a criminal matter, so you have county and police bringing their criminal case, too. But in order to do the best for the child, this has to be well-coordinated.”
Of course, getting to that place takes some cooperation among agencies, a laundry list of entities including KPD investigative services, Child Welfare Services, YWCA crisis response and therapeutic services, the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney, Deputy Attorney General, sex assault nurse examiners, court-appointed special advocates for children and foster parents.
“It’s much more complicated, and we have to continually be conscious of the fact that we are here for the children and what’s best for the children,” he says.
In that way, the job also is particularly fulfilling, following what French calls a “successful forensic interview, investigation and prosecution.”
“‘Successful’ in that the child victim felt safe enough to tell what was done to them and by whom, now feels they are believed and empowered by that,” he says. “This is the beginning of their healing – they are receiving therapy from the YWCA, and the case is going to court where it will hopefully be adjudicated justly. I also very much enjoy watching the little ones leave here with a smile on their faces because they felt safe and comfortable.”
Though the viewing area for the interview is somewhat sterile – it is home to a camera and several monitoring devices – the room where the victims are recorded is warm and child-friendly, full of donated toys and furniture. Each child who goes through the interview also gets a backpack with “their own stuff” donated by the FCJC. The backpack usually contains a plush blanket, towel and washcloth, toiletries, brush and a book or game.
Because so often perpetrators against children are trusted members or friends of the family, often the child isn’t returned home. In light of that, the backpacks serve as a small way to ease the transitional period when a child arrives at the home of a relative or foster parent.
“This way they have something of their own,” Huff says.
It’s especially important to make these children know someone out there cares about them, especially as in addition to having been abused or neglected, many are having to deal with issues of betrayal, as an estimated 85 percent of child-abuse victims know their abusers.
It’s also why having someone who cares and who is dedicated to serving the mission of the CJC is so important.
“Tom’s passion for this work and his dedication to the job have been a blessing to the Children’s Justice Center,” Huff says. As for what he will focus on in retirement, French still plans to assist the CJC and looks forward to spending time with his family on the Mainland.
“My favorite aspect of Kaua’i is the unpretentious charm of its people – a smile will go a long way here and folks are always willing to help,” he says. “This aspect matches the astounding physical beauty of Kaua’i. My hope is that this never changes, and that my wife and I can continue to spend our winters here on Kaua’i and summer with our family in Minnesota.”
WANT TO HELP?
The Friends of The Children’s Justice Center, a nonprofit that supports the CJC, will hold its annual fundraiser for abused children Aug. 3 from 4:30 to 8 p.m. at the Kaua’i Marriott tennis courts. Tickets cost $35. For more information, call the FCJC at 246-6214 or 651-4694. Tickets can be purchased at Kilauea Island Soap & Candle Works, Cost-U-Less-Kapa’a, Pictures Plus-Kukui Grove Center and The Wine Shop-Koloa. For more information, go to fcjckauai.org or “like” Friends-of-the-Kauai-Childrens-Justice-Center on Facebook.
TO REPORT AN AFTER-HOURS EMERGENCY, call the toll-free intake hotline, 800-494-3991, or Kaua’i police at 241-1711.
To contact the CHILDREN’S JUSTICE CENTER, call 241-3590.
The following are resources for parents of children who have been abused:
DARKNESS TO LIGHT
CHILDREN’S JUSTICE CENTERS OF HAWAII