McKenzie's Hope works behind scenes for kids

Amber Hirschy.
Photo by Jessica Williams.

Originally published Oct. 8, 2009.

McKenzie's Hope is a local organization that provides services behind the scenes.

"Our main goal is to provide a safe, comfortable location for the investigations of child abuse," says the executive director of McKenzie's Hope, Amber Hirschy. She has had this role since July 2008.

The process involves several community groups and individuals, but the main team Hirschy relies on is composed of law enforcement, department of child services and the prosecutor's office.

If a call comes in to the office that requires McKenzie's Hope's services, a time is set up to bring the family of the child in question into her office, Hirschy explains.

"We're at the very beginning of the process. [We determine] did something happen to the child and if something did, what happened?"

The team then assigns a trained interviewer to talk with the child, but the parents (or par-ent, depending on who the alleged abuser is) meet with team first to gain basic info about the family (their address, etc.) and also what do they know about the case. The team informs the parents then of what they know about the child, which varies from a lot of information or very little, Hirschy goes on. Each case is different.

Then the child is interviewed by that one person already determined, who uses a technique called "finding words." The technique, Hirschy says, tries to get the child to explain what has happened to them without leading them or making assumptions.

The interview with the child is recorded on a DVD and voice recorded. The other team members sit in the room beside the interview room and watch the child being interviewed and can feed questions to the interviewer, who wears an earpiece.

Hirschy says different team members need different questions asked for their part of the case.

The child is told about the camera and ear piece, she adds.

All of these things help them try to talk to the child only once and to one person, to lessen the shock of the event for the child, Hirschy explains. That's why all the team members don't see the child face to face, because it could be intimidating.

After the child is interviewed, the parents meet with the team again and are filled in on what the child said. Then the parents are updated on the process and what will happen next.

Hirschy says that afterwards, McKenzie's Hope has no personal interaction with the family. But the team meets every month to discuss each case until the case is concluded somehow (in court, another office, etc.).

The organization has deep roots in the community.
McKenzie's Hope opened Jan. 1 2006, but the process started in 2004 and began to take shape in 2005.
After the deaths of McKenzie Brown and Justin McKenzie in about 2000 and 2001, some community leaders did some research and decided that a child advocacy center was needed in Huntington.
"It got the community to really realize the reality of child abuse in the community," Hirschy says of the deaths.

There are child advocacy centers all over the country, but two aren't the same.

"All the child advocacy centers look a little different because every community is different and their needs are different. Ours is one of the smaller ones, because we are in a smaller community," she adds.

There are two other accredited centers in Indiana through National Children's Alliance besides McKenzie's Hope. The accredited centers meet more strict standards across the board, Hirschy says.

"Basically, it just helps us [provide] a higher quality of service to our families and to the children and to make sure that the interviews are really good interviews..."

McKenzie's Hope services children from ages 2 to 17, but Hirschy says it gets tricky when dealing with young children because they aren't able to effectively express what has happened to them and the case needs detail.
In the past year, 140 children were seen. Activity has slowed down and Hirschy thinks this is because summer and early in the school year are slower because there is less interaction with outside people, but she goes on to say the school year picks up because the kids are around more people.

She stresses that McKenzie's Hope doesn't work by itself.
"Without those three offices (law enforcement, DCS and prosecutor's office) coming together and being in agreement, we couldn't operate."