A visitor to the Washoe County Child Advocacy Center in Reno can’t help being impressed by the quiet and soothing atmosphere.
It’s colorful and clean, and feels more like a daycare center after hours than a place where young victims of abuse, neglect and sexual assault are supported in a secure setting.
The walls of the offices and examination rooms are adorned children’s drawings and the optimism wisdom that might appeal more to teen-agers. Among many: “To the world you are one person, but one person can change the world,” and “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
It’s there a visitor will see a large glass jar, the kind you might find in a sweet shop filled with candy. The jar was filled more than half way, not with treats, but with hundreds of colorful buttons, each representing a young person who had been treated there.
The center, Washoe County Human Services Agency Supervisor Tammi Williamson will tell you, was created to provide services to abuse victims and their non-offending caregivers through what professionals call a coordinated multi-disciplinary team approach. Here you’ll find front-line child advocates, treatment specialists and therapists, medical experts, and forensic examiners.
You’ll also encounter juvenile abuse and sexual-assault detectives and their counterparts in the Washoe County district attorney’s office. Because while the goal is to protect traumatized victims, there are also criminal investigations to be conducted.
“I was a worker when there were none of these programs,” Williamson says. “It’s great to see it come full circle. To have this program is just awesome. It just makes such a huge difference for the kids, and for myself, too.”
The center is an oasis in a desert of despair for too many of Nevada’s most vulnerable young people.
It was there in August that I followed two veteran child advocates, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Washoe County District Attorney Christopher Hicks, on a tour of the facility. It was there I was reminded not only of the dedication of so many medical, social, legal and law enforcement specialists, but also of the tragic truth that well into the 21st century, Nevada remains no place for children.
The Reno facility isn’t unique to the state. It has a busy counterpart in booming Clark County. In fact, Nevada child advocates will tell you the state continues efforts to expand its services to juvenile victims.
But the awful fact remains Nevada does a poor job of protecting its young. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count survey, which tracks the well-being of children in every state in 16 categories, ranks Nevada a nightmarish 47th. It’s hard to imagine even the slickest Silver State marketer making much hay out of a ranking that places us with perennially troubled Mississippi and Louisiana and dead-last New Mexico.
Some will blame the egregious ranking on economics, or a lack of political will. When this subject is raised in the public arena, prolific finger-pointing is usually followed by a strenuous lack of acceptance of responsibility. Republicans will pull on purse strings, Democrats on heart strings, and the low ranking will remain remarkably stable.
Will anything change now that Nevada has become the first state to elect a female-majority Legislature?
It’s wonderful to think so, but meaningful change takes time and consistent effort. It will take real political courage and long-term strategies to address the economic, health, education, family, and community issues that impact the state’s children. Economically high-rolling Nevada still has approximately two in every 10 of its kids living in poverty.
A new legislative session approaches, a new administration led by Steve Sisolak is being assembled, and a lot of new ideas are taking shape. The elected officials are about to become very occupied with official business, but I hope they’ll take time to stop by the advocacy center if only for a moment to see the jar and all those buttons it contains.
Even in a state with many needs, putting our children first should be the easiest call to make.
Contact John L. Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.