The stories that have been told in this two-story yellow house in Central Islip read like a worst-of list of the most atrocious crimes in recent Suffolk County history: children who were sexually or physically abused, incest, kids sold into sex trafficking rings, little boys and girls forced to make pornography, babies dying violently.
More than 500 victims under 17 years old from across the county walk through the door annually at the Suffolk County Child Advocacy Center at The Mary & Pat Bagnato Place for Kids (CAC), a facility with the look and feel of a pediatrician’s office designed to expedite investigations while minimizing trauma. The small staff here greets everyone with a smile, a hand to hold and anything else families need to get through the process. To make the facility comfortable on the increasing number of busy days, the center is currently building a new $1.5 million home adjacent to their current one.
“Children should be crying because their toy is broken or they lost their Barbie doll,” says Andrea Ramos-Topper, the home’s lead social worker and regional director of the Education & Assistance Corp., the not-for-profit agency that runs the center. “Children shouldn’t be crying because somebody hurt them.”
Ramos-Topper has been running the center since it was founded in October 1997 at the urging of a grand jury report that found issues with the investigation into the 1992 Katie Beers case, in which the 10-year-old girl was held in an underground bunker in Bay Shore for more than two weeks. Despite the often heart-wrenching nature of the cases she and her small staff encounter, the mother of two boys—who is married to a Suffolk County court officer—is consistently cheery.
“They tease me because I’m just a very friendly, happy person—but you have to be in this field,” Ramos-Topper says, as she sits in one of the center’s homey interview rooms decorated to make kids feel at ease. April is both Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so she’s giving a rare interview.
Many people only learn of the CAC when they or a family member is victimized. But it is also the monthly meeting place of the Suffolk County Child Abuse Strike Force—a multi-disciplinary team comprised of investigators from Suffolk County police, the district attorney’s office, the county attorney’s office, Child Protective Services (CPS) and the department of mental health, who regularly work and train together to maintain the best child-victim interview practices.
“When you’re dealing with young children, the environment in which they’re spoken to … plays a huge role in making sure that they feel as comfortable as possible,” says Detective Lt. Greg Byrne, who heads the Suffolk County police Special Victims Section. The intimidating atmosphere of a police station is not an ideal place to get a young child to open up, he says.
“That provides us with a beginning for us to be able to talk to these children about the very, very painful and difficult things that have happened to them,” Byrne says. “Without having a resource like the CAC, we certainly wouldn’t have the successes that we have in investigating and prosecuting these types of cases.”
The idea of a one-stop child victim interview center is a relatively new one that was born out of a series of high-profile botched child abuse investigations nationwide in the 1980s.
“When there’s a child abuse case, usually, if there’s a family member [who is a suspect], there’s a police investigation and a child protective investigation,” says Dari Schwartz, bureau chief of the Child Abuse and Domestic Violence Bureau in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, who notes that the majority of children are victimized by family, friends or acquaintances. “In the past, what would happen is the police would interview the child, CPS would interview the child and they would do it separately, so the kid would have more than one interview.”
Now, the agencies work closely together so the child does not have to relive the trauma repeatedly. “It’s better to limit the number of interviews of a child both for the child’s wellbeing and for the purposes of handling and moving ahead with the case,” says Schwartz, who has seen the investigative approach evolve since joining the bureau in 1987.
She points to a recent case in which a pediatrician had missed signs of genital bleeding in a 6-month-old that was caught by CAC’s medical team when CPS went for a second opinion as an example of the level of expertise found at the center. The defendant in that case later admitted to the crime and is currently awaiting sentencing, Schwartz says.
Experts credit the rise in cases to: more community outreach campaigns, the fact that New York State now mandates a wider range licensed professionals to report suspected signs of abuse, and some parents taking out the stress of the recession on their children. Still, there are believed to be an untold number of unreported abused children out there.
“You can never over emphasize the critical role that the Child Advocacy Center has, but their center is meaningless and worthless without the willingness of the community to take that difficult but necessary step forward,” says Gregory Blass, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. “We have always been concerned that many physical abuse cases and sexual abuse cases are falling under the radar and [that] in great measure is due to the reluctance of child victims to report their plight.”
The center is not the only one of its kind on Long Island. Across the county line there is the Nassau Coalition Against Child Abuse & Neglect, which recently opened a new child advocacy center in Bethpage. Cynthia Scott, the organization’s executive director, has also seen some tough cases, although there is the occasional silver lining.
“One of our clients who had to testify in court, which is hard—and she was 7 at the time—was actually able to come back when she was a teenager to help prepare another group of 7 year olds that were going to have to testify,” Scott says. “What an amazing thing that this child, who had gone through this very, very difficult situation, was able to over the years—with getting the right help and the right kind of support—come back and use her experience in a positive way.”
Suffolk County has other not-for-profit agencies performing similar child-victim advocacy work that will refer to the Central Islip-based CAC and vice versa, although there are some differences.
“If a child was victimized and there’s a loophole in a policy or a law, [our] agency takes it a step further and works very closely with policy makers and lawmakers to effect changes to prevent that type of victimization from happening again,” says Laura Ahearn with Stony Brook-based Parents for Megan’s Law and the Crime Victim’s Center. The group similarly provides support services for child victims like a mock courtroom—although it does not have a medical exam room like CAC—in addition to providing adult victim services. It is also one of two rape crisis centers in the county, the other being the Victim Information Bureau of Suffolk.
This is not work for the faint of heart. Ramos-Topper says she often gets calls in the middle of the night from investigators who need her assistance. But once she sees the process through, helping the children is all the reward she needs.
“When they’re leaving, kids will say, ‘When I come back next time…’ and I say, ‘Honey, I hope you never have to come back again.’”
Esther Gonzalez, a case coordinator with the CAC, jokes, “We should just live here.” The lightheartedness helps them get through the rough days, which often involve helping clients from years past.
“I don’t close cases and I try to help as much as I can, even if it has nothing to do with the case,” Gonzalez says. The way they go above and beyond doesn’t go unnoticed.
“Some of these kids are from really poor homes,” says Schwartz, the Suffolk County prosecutor. “They don’t have any clothes on their back,” but the CAC will get them clothing, she says. “It’s just the little things like that make a huge difference in the life of a kid.”
*Marie, a 32-year-old single mother of three young girls who were victims of incest, still keeps in touch with the CAC staffers that were with her in court. “They’ve always been there, even in the beginning when it was really hard,” she says. “They treated me like an equal, the same as they would anybody else.”
*Marie’s name was changed to protect her identity.