At ‘tiny’ Jasper County CAC, a team comes together in the most daunting case of their careers

From left Sarah Todd, Kim Denton, Melissa Mushett, Sonia Ferrer
From left Sarah Todd, Kim Denton, Melissa Mushett, Sonia Ferrer

In the rural northern Indiana town of Rensselaer, population of around 6,000 people, Valley Oaks Health operates one of eleven mental health centers in Indiana. What makes the Rensselaer office different is the presence of a CAC. It’s the only one in Valley Oak’s community mental health system and the CAC primarily serves the rural countryside that is Jasper and Newton Counties. In any given year, the CAC there does fewer than a hundred forensic interviews.

Kim Denton, whose primary job is working as a therapist, has the most experience of anyone on the team with forensic interviews. When a Department of Child Services caseworker texted her at 10 pm to say they were in urgent need of forensic interviews at 8 am the next day, the team didn’t blink.

“I immediately responded to that text,” says Denton. “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 that we needed to keep the kids safe and figure out a way to make it work.”

Ultimately, Denton and the team consisting of Melissa Mushett, Scott Luesse, Jeana Webb, Sarah Todd, Sonia Ferrer, Frankie Lane, and Allisandra Potts interviewed six children involved in the case.

“It was convoluted. There was more than one family involved,” she adds. DCS and law enforcement became aware of the situation when a local hospital alerted caseworkers that a minor child had given birth.

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

Reflecting on the size, scope, and details of the case, she adds, “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, the 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. But this past Saturday, November 2, 2019, the staff at Valley Oaks’ CAC received an award Denton nominated her team for. At their internal annual appreciation dinner, Valley Oaks presented the team with their Quality Improvement Golden Award of the year.

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

For any CAC team, secondary trauma is a real concern. Hearing damaging and horrifying details throughout the day can be hard on the adults working the cases. “I feel like we’ve all struggled in our own way. We did get together to do some stress de-briefing after the case. And we monitor everyone,” says Denton, adding, “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,” says Denton. “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 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,” says Denton. “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.”

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