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Children’s advocacy center in peril

Donations needed or forensic interviewer might have to close

MORRISON – She’s 12. She’s 12 and she’s so young, but she doesn’t think so. Her gangly limbs and mouth full of braces betray the eyeliner smeared about her bright green eyes.

And there’s this boy, this boy who’s maybe a little more of a man than a boy, but he has this boyish look about him, with sinewy muscles and big blue eyes. And she loves him, she’s certain. She can’t tell her mom, because he’s 19, and she just wouldn’t get it, but age is just a number, and she’s mature anyway, so it’s OK.

Until all of a sudden it isn’t. It isn’t OK, because this 19-year-old wants to do things that she’s never done before, things that she barely understands, and if she doesn’t do them ... oh, she can’t even consider the possibility. She’d lose this boy she loves, she’s sure of it.

And then one night he takes her into his room and she doesn’t have a choice. And then it’s over.

She goes home and she cries, and her grades start to slip, and she can’t focus on anything, and her teacher finally calls her in for a conference to ask her what’s wrong, and she breaks into tears, and she’s shaking her head, and no, no, no, she can’t talk about it. But yes, maybe something happened.

That’s where Johanna Hager comes in.

This particular 12-year-old girl doesn’t exist, but she could be a composite of the 50 girls seen each year by Hager, executive director and forensic interviewer at Whiteside County’s April House, and its sole employee.

April House is Whiteside County’s children’s advocacy center, and it’s there that Hager conducts 100 hour-long interviews a year with victims of child sexual abuse, physical abuse, and serious neglect. She works with professionals from law enforcement and child protective services to investigate and prosecute these types of cases, so far serving more than 1,250 victims.

But if things go the way they have been, April House might not exist for much longer.

April House was established in 2002 to serve the children of Whiteside County, but in the years since, funding has dramatically declined. This year, April House was unable to even come up with the $3,000 necessary to apply for accreditation consideration with the National Children’s Alliance – a requirement for being eligible for a grant from the attorney general’s office, which has been a reliable source of funds for years.

“We’ve had major delays in state grant funds,” Hager said. “Community donations were less, just because everyone’s struggling, and we haven’t even been able to afford what we can normally afford at the center, let alone come up with an additional $3,000.”

Donations from community members are used just to keep the center going, she said.

Child sexual abuse is often described as a crime of secrecy. Without any weapons or witnesses of the abuse, other than the victim and the perpetrator, cases rely solely on testimony, pitting the word of a child against that of an adult.

“You’re going to get maybe one interview,” Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi said. “One question-and-answer session with these victims – and that’s if you’re lucky.”

It’s a task Hager is singularly good at, he says.

On the day of their interview, children arrive at the sand-colored home on a tree-lined block of North Madison Street in Morrison. Hager greets them at the door and walks them into the comfortably decorated drawing room. On the left is a pair of closed doors, behind which a team of investigators sit at a table facing a television, waiting for the interview to begin. To the right is another room filled with toys and games and large couches, where a victim’s family will wait until the interview ends.

Hager smiles warmly at the child as they go through the home, past the small kitchen and into yet another room with two large leather chairs, a drawing board and a video camera.

This is the hard part, but she’s been in this line of work since 1992, so Hager is well-practiced. Over the course of the next hour, she uses the drawing board and talks about “touches,” “tickles” and “feelings” to figure out exactly what happened to the child during the kinds of situations that even adults are uncomfortable talking about.

At the close of the recorded interview, the child and family leave the home; the recording continues with law enforcement officials and is placed in evidence.

Hager’s job is done.

For her, April House is a passion. Without it, Whiteside County victims would have to travel up to an hour to get to the nearest children’s advocacy center – Shining Star in Lee County, or maybe Braveheart in Henry County – something she and other law enforcement officials worry would infringe on the child’s comfort level and the investigators’ ability to get as much information as possible.

Which means they’re not going to let April House go without a fight.

“I have gone probably about 3 months without them paying [my salary] because of grant delays,” Hager said through tears. “So I’m thinking we’ve still got a few months to see if we can pull something together.

“I’m a firm believer that if enough people really want something to happen, they can make it happen.”

To help

Send donations to the nonprofit April House, 503 N. Madison St., Morrison, IL 61270. Call Executive Director Johanna Hager, 815-772-8663, for more information.

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