Dunebrook marks 30 years, overcoming criticism and skeptics along the way

Dunebrook CAC staff Beni Miller, Angie Marsh, and Meghan Mahaffy
Dunebrook CAC staff Beni Miller, Angie Marsh, and Meghan Mahaffy

In the early 1980s, a small group of LaPorte County natives met in Michigan City. They called themselves the Child Abuse Prevention Council. Members of law enforcement, attornies, medical professionals, and other child advocates were convinced the way they were handling abuse cases wasn’t the best. They knew the growing child advocacy center movement could bring a lot of value to kids in the northern Indiana community.

The problem was the growing child advocacy center movement was also new. It wasn’t until the mid-80’s the group visited the nation’s first CAC in Huntsville, Alabama. But in 1989, the group formally incorporated into the name it maintains today: Dunebrook.

Named for the rolling sand dunes of its nearby parks and Lake Michigan shoreline, Dunebrook is celebrating 30 years of service to LaPorte and neighboring counties this October.

“My mother-in-law was on the original council,” says Angie Marsh, who currently heads Dunebrook’s Child Advocacy Center. “She was a victim advocate and an early pioneer in getting law enforcement and the Department of Child Services to start conducting forensic interviews of alleged child abuse victims,” she adds.

The first ten years for the CAC, like most CACs leading the nation in their development, was sluggish. The changes required in the protocol for law enforcement were lengthy. Many officers didn’t want to drive all the way to Dunebrook. Not when they were used to speaking to kids on their own. Often interviews were done in nearby jails or in the field. Prosecutors had to be won over to the cause. Many even thought CACs would do harm to investigations for fear it might “make kids soft”.

Dunebrook children’s advocacy center
Dunebrook’s primary location in Michigan City, Ind.

Dunebrook’s early leaders and Council knew better and charged ahead. In 1992 the group won a matching grant from Oprah Winfrey that they used to purchase furniture. In 1996 Dunebrook started the  Healthy Families program, a program where home visitors educate new moms on child development, work through life struggles and support the family in raising happy, healthy children. The US Department of Education awarded Dunebrook a designation as an official Parent Information Resource Center in 2001. More recognition came three years later when then-Governor Joe Kearnan designated the facility as a state leader for parents and teachers. The designation came from early work around prenatal and substance abuse prevention.

The staff kept growing, and in 2005 a larger facility was designed. A year later Marsh joined the partnership in as a Healthy Families home visitor. This early experience with families and parent training led to a series of moves and title changes that increasingly intertwined with the advocacy work being done at Dunebrook. In 2007 Dunebrook was expanded services to LaPorte, Porter, Starke, Newton, Jasper, and Pulaski Counties through the Community Partners Program.

In 2010 Marsh became the Director of the Child Advocacy Center and the only forensic interviewer.  Marsh was trained in the nation-leading “Finding Words” program. Finding Words trains teams on how to conduct forensic interviews. Like the name suggests, it trains staff to empower kids to find the words to talk about what happened. A challenging professional skill when kids are often unlikely to speak openly.

In 2011, a Family Advocate was hired into the CAC to support the families at the time of the interview on through the court process. The Family Advocate is charged with providing education on abuse, behaviors, giving referrals to community resources, and medical and mental health.

In 2013, Dunebrook passed 200 interviews. A hefty milestone in a series of communities that had resisted much of their help. Three years later saw 300 interviews, and today, Dunebrook is doing double that with 400 interviews annually.  From 2010 – 2013 the CAC expanded services to Starke, Pulaski, and Porter counties. Partnerships with local law enforcement and prosecutors in every county are the strongest they’ve been in three decades.

The Public Education Director is so busy visiting schools and groups around the area conducting body safety lessons in elementaries, middle school, and high schools “we barely see her,” exclaims Marsh. In September of 2019, a lesson was done every single school day. In early 2019 the CAC hired another forensic interviewer.

Now Dunebrook is working on the next series of milestones, including accreditation. “Accreditation is coming in the next year.” says Marsh. Accreditation by the National Children’s Alliance brings a series of benefits for the Center and the region.

Despite not being an entirely rural facility, Duenbrook has struggled with meeting all the criteria. Accreditation requires having medical and mental health screenings available to victims. The hold-up stems from a lack of trained nurses from nearby hospitals.

“We have one nurse who has done the required training on her own, at her own expense and on her own time,” says Marsh. The Center is sending several victims a week for screenings.

In many ways, community buy-in, a hallmark of a successful CAC, has been a struggle to overcome even after 30 years in the community. But the early Council and staff in the last three decades have been unrelenting in their pursuit of what they know is right and best for kids. . “We’re giving these kids a safe space to tell their story.”, Marsh says.

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