Award

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Pictured are (from left) Sarah Todd, Kim Denton, Melissa Mushett and Sonia Ferrer with the Quality Improvement Golden Award of the Year for Valley Oaks’ CAC team.

RENSSELAER — The Indiana Chapter of the Children’s Advocacy Center released an article this week that praised the work of Rensselaer’s Valley Oaks Health employees for their service in a sensitive investigation.

The Indiana CAC made the contents of the article available for the press to use, and a key leader at Valley Oaks Health was also able to speak briefly with the Rensselaer Republican this week. What follows is a conglomeration of that article and the follow-up interview.

In Rensselaer, Valley Oaks Health operates one of its 11 mental health centers in Indiana. But what makes the Rensselaer office different is the presence of a CAC, the only one in Valley Oaks’ community mental health system.

CAC primarily serves the rural countryside that is Jasper and Newton counties and does fewer than 100 forensic interviews in any given year.

Kim Denton, a team lead manager at Valley Oaks Health who primarily works as a therapist, has the most experience of anyone on her team with forensic interviews. A Department of Child Services caseworker recently texted her at 10 p.m. one night to say they were in urgent need of forensic interviews at 8 a.m. the next day.

“I immediately responded to that text,” Denton said. “We made things work, making accommodations with our staff and other patients. We didn’t know much going into it and we didn’t have a lot of details. All we knew was we needed to keep the kids safe and figure out a way to make it work.”

Denton’s team consisted of Melissa Mushett, Scott Luesse, Jeana Webb, Sarah Todd, Sonia Ferrer, Frankie Lane and Allisandra Potts. They ultimately interviewed six children involved in the case.

“We interviewed every child we thought was involved,” Denton said. “We were going to make sure there were no other victims.”

Reflecting on the size, scope and details of the case, she added, “To be honest, we’ve never seen a case like this before.”

The case required an immense amount of organization. On the morning of the interview, a multidisciplinary team gathered in a small room at the Valley Oaks office. There, prosecutors, law enforcement officers from three jurisdictions, CAC staff, and DCS started mapping out the case and everyone’s age and relationship to each other on easel paper.

Throughout the process, gang-related retaliation threats loomed as law enforcement continued their investigation and became concerned about safety. As the day unfolded, DCS secured the children and their own offices. Police officers stayed close with every member of the team for safety.

The case grew when prosecutors asked for a second interview of the primary victim two weeks later, which Denton handled personally. This added another jurisdiction where more abuse allegedly occurred. The case is now working through the judicial system.

“We normally work in conjunction with the authorities involved in the investigation,” Denton said.

On Nov. 2, the staff at Valley Oaks’ CAC received an award Denton nominated her team to receive. At their annual internal appreciation dinner, Valley Oaks presented the team with their Quality Improvement Golden Award of the year.

“I nominated our team for the award,” Denton said. “It comes from an employee recognizing other employees for a job well done.”

The article disclosing much of this information to the press was intentionally vague so that the investigation itself remains secure.

“Due to the small nature of our community, it’s easy to pick up on identities,” Denton said. “That’s the reason the article was written so vaguely.”

She added that “even what was posted (online for the press) was filtered through Valley Oaks’ privacy officer.”

That article did note, however, that the team had to endure hearing the horrifying details of what transpired.

“I feel like we’ve all struggled in our own way,” Denton said. “We did get together to do some stress de-briefing after the case. And we monitor everyone. I’m incredibly protective of my team. We can’t provide quality interviews if we’re not doing well.”

She hopes the recognition of the work involved is not lost amid the details of the case.

“Some of the things (the alleged victim) said that day will forever be in my mind,” she said. “The look on her face. The reactions from that child will stay with me for a long time. And the same can be said for the team.”

Since the case was heard, Denton notes it sometimes feels like the cases are getting worse. Situations where children allegedly witness the murder of one parent by another, sexual assault by grandparents, and alleged gang affiliation crimes bleeding out of Chicago are a struggle. But they also serve as a reminder that no town, no matter how small or out of the way, is immune to the dangers of child abuse.

“But this team, small as they are, we go again,” Denton said. “I feel like our tiny little team goes unnoticed because we don’t see the intensity or quantity of cases other CACs do. But this whole ordeal also required inexperienced interviewers to step up. They had to get the interview right. A lot of expectations were met.”

Though she is “incredibly proud” of her team and feels “honored” to be a part of it, she said the primary concern is always to protect children who are at risk of falling in harm’s way.

“This is not about credit at all,” she said. “It’s about these kids being protected. And we are completely fine with being anonymous because it’s more about keeping these kids safe.”

To emphasize her point, she noted that the case with which the award is associated is just “one of many.”

“This is a group of people who just care about kids,” she said of her team. “And we’re not looking for accolades.”