Safe Harbor, a children’s advocacy center based in Allegan County with a satellite center in Barry County, offers a lifeline to kids who have been abused or neglected. Safe Harbor just celebrated its fifth anniversary in Barry County, helping those children toward the ultimate goal, “Every child deserves to be safe.”
Many people worked for some time to bring Safe Harbor to Barry County before it became a reality. Barry County Prosecutor Julie Nakfoor-Pratt was instrumental in the effort. An assistant prosecuting attorney in Allegan County before she ran for prosecutor in Barry County, she worked with the child advocacy center there. When elected prosecutor in 2012, she made it her first priority to help bring a satellite center here.
“Jeanette Maki, Jay Olejniczak, Jeff Pratt, Chris Koster, Dale Boulter, and the late Ray Hoffman; we were all were working for it, Jay the most, I think,” she said. All of those she named are members of county police agencies.
At the sheriff’s office, a child to be interviewed about abuse or neglect would sit in the waiting room and could be sitting next to a sex offender or would be interviewed amid the confusion of a parade of offenders and officers walking by. Being interviewed in the basement of Hastings City Hall also was unpleasant for children.
Now, if it is suspected that a child has been a victim of abuse or neglect, the child meets a forensic interviewer in a quiet room at Safe Harbor with wall murals of deer in a forest and video cameras that look like light switches. The goal is to learn the circumstances and facts in the child’s situation in a friendly, non-threatening atmosphere. Physicals can be scheduled for the children later, if it is indicated.
The interviews are watched in another room by law enforcement officials, prosecutors and mental health professionals, so the re-telling of any abuse by the child is kept to a minimum.
The video goes only to law enforcement; it will go to the prosecutor’s office as part of the law enforcement report. The prosecutor may show it to a defendant and their attorney. Seeing the interview sometimes results in a plea before trail, so the child may never have to go to court.
“A change that I have experienced is that the use of Safe Harbor has greatly improved and organized the investigation of child abuse and neglect cases here with a more team approach.
“We have several agencies with expertise and knowledge, not just in bringing charges, but also eliminating some cases that shouldn’t be bought,” Nakfoor-Pratt said. The Family Support Center of Barry County also collaborates with Safe Harbor on certain projects.
Non-suspect family members and other caregivers are included in the process, kept aware of everything that is going on and what will likely come next, making the process easier for families.
“If charges can’t be brought, for any number of reasons, Safe Harbor continues to help the family, with counseling and other on-going services, which is huge,” Nakfoor-Pratt said.
The center has also worked with some adults with special needs with interviews.
Nakfoor-Pratt makes sure a prosecutor is at the interviews to watch the video to put the department in at the very beginning. “Our team can provide guidance and input. It’s important; we’ve actually seen the results. We also do a monthly case review so nothing slips through the cracks. I think the team approach is key.”
Lori Antkoviak has been executive director of Safe Harbor in Allegan since 2007 and led the expansion into Barry County. “The bad news is that the service is even needed; the good news is that the children are coming and there is a place for them to come,” she said.
She credited Barry County Safe Harbor’s success to the good relationships and strong support from several Barry County agencies; the United Way, Community Foundation, prosecutor’s office, Mental Health Authority, Social Services and local law enforcement. “Many private services also help, assuring all kids get help,” she said. Hopefully, they will soon have a full-time advocate to serve both counties..
Antkoviak gave some statistics:
Allegan County Safe Harbor treated 176 children in 2017; 173 in 2016; 176 in 2015; 177 in 2014 and 156 in 2013.
Barry County treated 129 children in 2017; 132 in 2016; 134 in 2015; and 127 in 2014 and 12 in the two weeks it was open in December of 2013.
Formerly the Child Abuse and Neglect Council in Allegan County, it became Safe Harbor in the early 2000s and was established in Barry County in 2013. Since then, the two offices have made lives of almost 1,400 children safer and helped kids just be kids.
Allegan County had 111,530 residents, Barry County 59,080, according to the 2010 census.
The Allegan Center is at 402 Trowbridge Street in Allegan, 269-673-3791, and in Barry County at 1127 West State Street, Hastings, 269-948-3617.
Nationally, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they reach 18. Safe Harbor is working to stop the cycle.