January 16, 2010


Funding cut for new child abuse program

YWCA of Cortland’s Child Advocacy Program loses nearly one-third of its state aid


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Rita Wright, left, Child Advocacy Center director, and Terry Villanova, family advocate at the center, hold dolls used inside the center on Church Street. Funding is being cut to the program.

Staff Reporter

Funding for a new YWCA program aimed at assisting children who suffer physical and sexual abuse and convicting people who abuse them will lose almost one-third of its funding for the year because of a reduction in state aid.
State funding for the YWCA of Cortland’s Child Advocacy Program, which is now operating in a two-floor area at 19 Church St. in the city, was reduced from $100,000 to $72,000, said Amy Simrell, director of the YWCA of Cortland.
The funding pays for the salary of Program Coordinator Rita Wright, a lease on the building, utilities, telephone service, office supplies and training for staff.
Simrell said the Child Advocacy Program requested a minimal amount of funding that does not include custodial service or trash removal, so the cut will have a large impact on the program’s services.
“It is a dilemma where I think sometimes you’re rewarded for padding budgets ... and you’re certainly punished if you don’t,” Simrell said.
Wright’s salary will be reduced by 65 percent, reducing her from full-time to part-time, unless the program finds additional funding.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult to serve the children and provide services to these children who desperately need it without funding,” Wright said Thursday.
Simrell declined to share Wright’s salary because Wright is not considered a public officer.
After years of planning and waiting for state funding, the Child Advocacy Program began operating in August. Wright said it has served about 15 local children.
The two-floor area includes a children’s playroom, a medical room, a kitchen, an interview room, office space and conference room.
At the center, staff from the YWCA Aid to Victims of Violence program work closely with staff from several agencies, including the Cortland County Department of Social Services, state police, city Police, county Sheriff’s Department, county District Attorney’s Office, county Mental Health Department and the SUNY Cortland University Police Department.
The program is designed to create a child-friendly environment where children can tell local officials about being abused and only have to tell their story once. The departments conduct joint interviews with children after a crime has been reported.
“What we’re doing now is putting a team together so we have a central location to work and the children will have a nice, friendly place to come,” Wright said.
The program plans to soon bring doctors and counselors into the center to further assist children who have been abused.
Before the program was formed, Wright said the YWCA and other agencies would meet with children in the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department. Wright said the center’s atmosphere makes children more comfortable, as police officers carrying guns and rooms with bare walls can intimidate them. The center features colorful decorations, sofas, books, stuffed animals and toys.
Before the center opened, children would also have to visit several agencies for interviews at different times, causing more emotional distress to the children, Wright said.
Wright said she received an e-mail Jan. 5 informing her of the 2010 funding cut. Gov. David Paterson announced the cut for child advocacy programs across the state during his State of the State address last week. The state Legislature approved the cuts as part of the 2009 Spending Reduction Plan.
The program received a previous cut in its 2009 state funding from $150,000 to $141,000.
Simrell said other child advocacy programs that have been around longer have had time to secure additional incentive funding based on their performance. Child advocacy programs receive bonuses when other agencies, such as police, hospital and mental health services set up offices at their center.
“If everyone is in tight step, the evidence is better and the chance of prosecuting the perpetrator is greater,” Simrell said.
Simrell said open offices in the center will eventually be used by other local agencies on a daily basis. The state allows for an 18-month start-up period to create other offices, and the center in Cortland has only been open five months.
“If we had been open longer, we would be in better shape,” she said.
In the first two quarters of 2009 there were 56 cases of child abuse and 687 cases of child maltreatment in Cortland County, according to a report from the state Office of Family Services. Maltreatment includes neglect and verbal abuse, and child abuse includes physical abuse.
Simrell said other child advocacy programs have been very effective.
“If we have a model that has proven to work in other counties and we’re a county that has this issue, I think we should try the model,” she said.
“It’s a very important, very positive asset for the community,” Cortland Police Lt. David Guerrera said of the program Thursday.
Guerrera said the city police department has conducted seven investigations at the center since August, and he had an appointment with a young alleged victim at the center Thursday afternoon regarding a case that will soon go to trial.
Guerrera said the center’s atmosphere and the increased training has made it easier for police to collect information and evidence from children.
Sgt. Elizabeth Starr, the city police’s youth division detective, Sgt. Jason Newcomb of the county Sheriff’s Department and Tony Roberts of the state police, have been attending weekly child abuse training sessions funded through the program, Guerrera said.
The program is funded through the state Office of Children and Family Services. In 2009, the YWCA of Cortland received a $141,000 grant from the Office of Children and Family Services and a $50,000 grant from the National Children’s Alliance to pay for the costs of starting the program.
The New York State Crime Victims Board also provides a grant to pay for the salary of part-time employee Terry Villanova.
Wright said she is starting a bottle and can drive to raise money for the center in partnership with T&T Redemption Center in the Riverside Plaza.
The Child Advocacy Center will be reimbursed 5 cents for every bottle and can people bring to the T&T Redemption Center for the YWCA, Wright said. She said people just have to say that the donation is for her program.
Wright said she is figuring out other fundraising ideas that will follow.
The center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. People can call the office at 607-753-0825 or hotline at 607-423-2242 for help.


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