Laura Baran and Christa Collier are honoring those who founded the organization while looking toward the future.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Twenty years ago when a child was sexually or physically abused they first had to tell their story over and over and over again.
They would first tell it to a teacher or parent, then the school, then the police, then the nurses at the hospital, then the police detective, then the child protection services, then the prosecutor and then a therapist.
A group of local detectives and prosecutors sought a better way than forcing youngsters through such an emotional gauntlet.
The result was Berkshire County Kids Place being incorporated in 1993. Kids Place puts all of those services — medical, emotional, social and investigative — under one roof. It was the first facility of its kind in Massachusetts.
Now 20 years later, the organization is celebrating the idea that revolutionized the way the county fights child abuse.
"There are so many horrible things that happen in the county but we here do have a good response," Kids Place Executive Director Christa Collier said this past week as the organization is set to embark on a 20th anniversary celebration.
The nonprofit will hold a gala on Thursday, Oct. 24, where they will honor founders attorney Timothy Shugrue, Detectives Joe Collias of Pittsfield and Robert Canale of North Adams, Robert Smith and William Hines, who headed the effort to form it, and the organization's first executive director Jennifer Tierny Stokes.
"I feel it is really time to give them thanks for their foresight," Collier said.
After the 1993 incorporation, a fundraising effort purchased the former Red Cross Headquarters on Wendell Avenue and provides every service an abused child would need — at no cost to the family.
In the Kids Place building there are offices for five therapists, a medical examiner and a coordinator from the district attorney's office. There is a room for forensic interviews to take place by a representative from the state Department of Children and Families, which are audio and video recorded and shared among detectives working on the case. Meanwhile, the organization subcontracts with a councilor from the Elizabeth Freeman Center who can help in cases of domestic abuse.
"It is a coordinated response," Collier said.
Representatives of all those organizations — from state and local police to therapist — have quarterly or monthly meetings to coordinate the investigation, court case and finally the healing process. By combining those services under one roof, the investigation costs decrease by 36 percent, Collier said.
Outside of the office, the organization opened an outreach center in North Adams in 2001 and later one in Great Barrington. It will continue to provide awareness campaigns to get children to report abuse to the right officials as a way to end it.
Its efforts are paying off. Berkshire County has the highest number of reported cases in the state with North Adams topping the list of municipalities. Collier said that isn't because there are more children being abused here but that the organization's efforts have increased awareness. The organization serves children as young as 2 years old and as old as 21.
The rooms are decorated to make children feel comfortable, such as these handprints of children who have gone through the same situation.
"We serve 400 children per year and 40 to 50 percent of those are sexual abuse... The national statistics are one in every four girls and one in every six boys will be abused before the age of 18," Collier said. "I think the more awareness people have, the more likely they are to report and get the services they need."
Other than the reporting numbers, she can see the organization's success in individual cases. The councilor's focus on short-term therapy to help children recover from trauma and seeing those children begin to cope with whatever the event may be, is where Collier sees the progress they've made.
"Ours is a short-term model. You aren't in therapy for life. We help them get over the trauma so we focus on that trauma," Collier said. "It is giving the child the tools to manage their emotions."
While the 20th anniversary is providing a time for the organization to look at where its come from, officials also have their eyes on the future.
"We are in a growth mode right now," Collier said.
This year the organization was able to hire Laura Baran as a full-time development and special events coordinator and in 2010 the group contracted with Hillcrest Educational Centers to take over the back office management. Now Baran and Collier have set a goal to reach further out to the community and to start looking at upgrades to the facility.
"We need to go to where the people are," Collier said, adding that the organization has recently reached a partnership with the YMCA to provide any needed services there and the Kids Place continually goes to schools and other organizations to teach them the signs of abuse — all steps the group wants to increase.
The organization has a medical examiner on site.
Additionally, the organization wants to keep with the times and expand some of its therapy programs. The group is looking into possible equestrian therapy programs or expanding its adventure program (anyone who has driven past the building can't miss the rock climbing wall the organization added in 2003).
"We're trying to stay with what's new," Baran said.
Collier said they want to get more involved with other types of community organization because many social ills have a root cause in abuse.
"We want to be recognizable in the community," she said. "We like to be involved in the community as much as possible."
Meanwhile, a building committee was formed to identify capital needs the organization will need on the building.
The Kids Place receives operational funding from both the federal and state government as well as raising its own funds. Each year events like the Jimmy's Ride raises about $150,000 to $170,000. Overall, the organization runs on a $600,000 budget.
It has been 20 years since the founders' vision and the current staff want to make sure Kids Place is even better for years to come.