“All of this is key to changing the future of Madison County”

Kids Talk CAC celebrates ten years of service in 2024

In 1971 the City of Anderson, Indiana had 70,000 residents and 1-in-3 working adults were employed at General Motors assembly plants. It was so many the company had to stagger shifts so not every plant let out at once clogging Scatterfield Road.

Everything in Anderson revolved around GM. When the company started shuttering plants in the early 2000s after 50 years of operations, some may have suspected but few likely recognized it would take another 50 years for the dust to settle. In many ways, residents today still feel the impact of these closures.

Shortly before 2014, a team of local prosecutors and caseworkers started to identify a need for a new, better approach to handling child sexual abuse cases. Madison County and the broader Anderson area peaked in population in the 70s with about 138,000 residents. By 2010 the population declined only to 131,000. Today about 130,000 reside in the county. The population had, remarkably, stayed put for a town and county that once housed more GM plants than anyplace in America outside Flint, Michigan.

Despite the population’s overall stability, the culture and income levels were not as stable. “I was born and raised here,” says Denise Valdez. “[Madison County] has always been the second or third highest county in the state with substantiated abuse or neglect,” she says. “Once GM went away, now there’s rampant poverty, educational attainment is low, and combined, both of those things lend themselves to those high neglect and abuse rates,” she says.

Kids Talk CAC opens in August 2014

Juvenile Judge Steve Koester
Juvenile Judge Steve Koester

 “We’d been talking about establishing a Child Advocacy Center, and Steve Koester (now a local judge) and the Child Sexual Abuse Taskforce agreed we needed a CAC,” she recalls. “Steve and Annette Craycraft from CASA went to Aspire Indiana and asked if they’d consider operating a CAC under their umbrella.” Aspire Indiana is a healthcare system operating in several Indiana communities. 

Unlike many other CACs that operate independently as nonprofit entities, the team made the shrewd assessment that a Madison County Child Advocacy Center would need a different kind of financial support. “Madison County is not as resource-rich as other places. It’s not easy to support nonprofits here, and there are many of them here,” she says.

To the Taskforce’s delight, Aspire agreed and began to operate a CAC dubbed Kids Talk. With Aspire’s agreement the CAC immediately had access to everything from grant writers to IT support, HR, management, and accounting. “I’ve run standalone nonprofits before and know how expensive they are to operate,” says Valdez. “That was a huge help.”

Members of the early MDT gather before a forensic interview in the original Kids Talk location.
Members of the early MDT gather before a forensic interview in the original Kids Talk location.

When the doors opened on August 1, 2014, “It was just me,” recalls Valdez. “We used a detective from Anderson P.D. who was trained in ChildFirst protocols and we later received a JAG grant to hire another forensic interviewer that we split part-time between us and Cherish CAC next door in Hamilton County.”

Amy Bounds leads a Body Boundaries lesson at a local elementary school.
Early team members hold donated signage for the first Kids Talk location.

Indeed, Kids Talk and Cherish CAC developed a special relationship that persists to this day. “Wendy [Gamble] was phenomenal. From the start she’d provide information on how her MDT was operating. They’d come over and do interviews at our center so I could watch and observe, and that’d help alleviate burnout on our team. That was huge for me that she could provide that visual of how an effective interview should go.”

“Jan Lutz was just as helpful at the Indiana Chapter of NCA,” says Valdez. “She helped me understand how an MDT should operate and the accreditation standards once we started that process. She helped me understand best practices and helped me build that network of other CAC directors. I felt the support and could reach out anywhere. I’ve met a lot of great friends through the Chapter. Jan’s been that conduit.”

 Staff grows to meet the demands of a resurgent community

“After a year of splitting Kelsey Weber’s time with Cherish, we got a grant to bring her here full-time. Then we brought in a third person, Becky Oldham, as an Advocate,” says Valdez. “Becky was promoted to a manager a few years ago and runs daily operations, and is very, very good.”

Julie Coon joined in 2017 to help run the Kids Talk Prevention Education program and has grown that program to reach nearly all 8,000 students in Madison County classrooms.

The current Kids Talk staff in 2024 (Denise Valdez not pictured).
The current Kids Talk staff in 2024 (Denise Valdez not pictured).

“We’re up to 6 people now, and every time we’ve lost someone, it’s because they’ve decided to make major life changes. We’ve always tried to maintain a culture where everyone is valued and heard,” says Valdez. Then, with a pause reflects, “We just do not experience turnover. I think we try to honor personal and work time equally, and that helps.”

Amy Bounds leads a Body Boundaries lesson at a local elementary school.
Amy Bounds leads a Body Boundaries lesson at a local elementary school.

“It’s a very caring culture and we use a lot of humor because we hear a lot of hard stuff,” says Valdez. Caseload at Kids Talk peaked around 800 kids several years ago and has now settled into a rhythm of about 600 per year. 

“We hired an Advocate last year whose sole job is to do follow-up,” says Valdez. “She calls families a week after their interview here and every couple of weeks after that.” Much of the value in that, Valdez says, is how those follow-up conversations help encourage families and serve them better.” Some of that follow-up ensures caregivers who were disinclined to seek counseling or other help do so.

Nearly every old GM plant has been dismantled for scrap and some have been sold off in the last ten years. Local leaders know that’s necessary for the future stability of the community. Meanwhile, the team at Kids Talk knows supporting families after an allegation of abuse is equally necessary. “Just following up has made a huge impact on how much the caregivers are participating in support services with kids after an interview,” she says. “All of this is another key to changing the future for this county.”

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