Photo: Barrie Center staff display pinwheels in front of the Etowah County Judicial Building each year, serving as a physical representation of the children helped by the center that year. (Emma Kirkemier/Messenger)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
The James M. Barrie Center for Children, Inc., held a particularly significant pinwheel ceremony this year on April 12, celebrating the center’s 20th anniversary.
Barrie Center Director Patricia Falcon has served the families of Etowah County since the center’s inception in 2002.
“So many things have changed during that time, but the one thing that remained the same was our mission, and that is to provide hope, healing and justice for our families,” Falcon said.
The Pinwheel Ceremony is designed to honor children and families who have walked the hard road to recovery.
Every year, Barrie Center staff place pinwheels on the front lawn of the Etowah County Judicial Building, each one representing a child who was helped by the Barrie Center that year. Over the course of 2022, the center conducted 301 specialized forensic interviews with child victims of alleged sexual or physical abuse.
“This year we placed 301 pinwheels, one pinwheel for each child that we served with a forensic interview,” Falcon said. “Over the course of 20 years, though, we have served over 5,800 children and over 8,400 family members.”
A professional forensic interviewer gently guides the child through a discussion of trauma they may have experienced. Interviewers are trained not to ask leading questions or prod children to speak. Instead, in the words of Circuit Judge George C. Day, Sixteenth Judicial Circuit, they “let the children tell the story at their own pace.”
“What I learned from the Barrie Center is that children sometimes relay this information in pieces,” Day said. “They may not do it all at one time. So as a result, what I saw in a case before me was a number of different forensic interviews. But the reason that happens is they don’t push them. They don’t prod them, because most children don’t react well to that.”
“It is easy to lead a child, but these therapists are trained to do an interview in a way that when it comes before judges, we can see that it’s done correctly,” said Etowah County Presiding District Judge Joe F. Nabors, Sixteenth Judicial Circuit. “They are able to sit down and talk to that child and gather the truth about that allegation.”
Several judges claimed that having a forensic interviewer like the Barrie Center’s Reaghan Lowry, LBSW, is “invaluable” in those cases.
“Because of the work that the Barrie Center does, that 4-year-old and that 6-year-old that were interviewed by professionals who are not law enforcement, who are not wearing a badge and a gun, who are in an environment that was so friendly to them that they could actually feel comfortable and safe — because of those recorded interviews, we settle more than 90 percent of those cases,” said Etowah County District Attorney Jody Willoughby.
The goal is to ascertain the truth in an ethical way that avoids retraumatizing the victim, often preventing the child from having to testify in court.
“Hanging in the balance of those types of things are determinations as to custody and visitation that are going to affect that child the rest of his or her life,” Day said. “So it is immensely valuable, what they do, because it gives the court some confidence that it’s making the right decision.”
The center aims to provide a safe space for children and their families.
“This year we have provided over 1,000 free therapy sessions,” Falcon said. “Sixty-eight percent of the cases that we see are children who were victims of sexual (abuse) allegations, and 30 cases in this last year involved domestic violence.”
Barrie Center Therapist Karon Sullivan, MS, is responsible for those sessions, with occasional help from Facility Dog Kuzco.
The Barrie Center also had over 3,000 “advocacy contacts” with affected families and educated over 800 individuals on recognizing and reporting child abuse.
“We’re training all nurses at Gadsden State for their future so that they know about child abuse and know what to do and how to make those reports,” Falcon said. “We train new social workers at Jacksonville State.”
Barrie Center Board of Directors President Glen Williams claimed that the education the center offers empowers children to come forward and ask for help in abusive situations.
“We’ve seen this number increase thanks to education,” he said. “When a child learns that something is wrong and it’s OK to tell somebody, that’s where the number grows.”
Judges and law enforcement officials alike attested that the center helps families move toward justice and healing.
“Without them, I don’t know how we would do it,” said Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton. “There would be no way. Just as a crime scene investigator is called to come out and work a homicide scene, the Barrie Center is to a case that involves abuse to a child.”
“It’s a healing process for an entire family, friends and loved ones,” said Circuit Judge William B. Ogletree, Sixteenth Judicial Circuit. “I want to commend that family and those that have come before me with the courage, with the help and assistance of the Barrie Center. The courage of everybody that goes through the process on the front end allows the empowerment and the healing to take place.”
While 58 percent of the center’s funding comes from federal grants, Falcon is leading a charge to diversify funding sources.
“You all know that our funding comes from ADECA and through our Alabama Network of Child Advocacy Centers, but we’re starting to reach out more to our municipalities to share with them our work,” Falcon said. “We also receive funding from United Way, and that is a critical piece of our funding. But we need to make sure that our municipalities understand the value of the children that are served in their communities and how we work in the community.”
Falcon noted that community corporate sponsors have been “critical” in the past year, including BMSS Advisors and CPAs, Impact Realty, The Gadsden/Etowah Chamber of Commerce, Alabama Teachers Credit Union, Team One Chevrolet, Copeland Law, Johnson’s Giant Food and Team One Toyota.
Blue Sunday, an international day of prayer and support for children and families affected by abuse, will be held on April 30. The Barrie Center encouraged churches of all faiths to pray that day.