Working with injured or ill children takes a special kind of nurse. Working with children who have suffered the unthinkable trauma of sexual abuse takes the nurses' pledge to "devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care" to another level.
As a pediatric sexual assault nurse practitioner at the Children's Advocacy Center (CAC), Ashley Haynes embodies the commitment expressed in that Florence Nightingale pledge. For victims of alleged sexual abuse, she is their first advocate, the professional who skillfully and delicately takes them through a thorough, head-to-toe medical examination to listen to them, document abuse and collect evidence.
Her work is uncomfortable to talk about but necessary if the child and their parent(s) -- and the community at large -- are to get past the shame and stigma that for decades has shut down victims and allowed perpetrators to go unpunished, Haynes says.
"A listening, believing ear is always important," she says. "How we show up, our care, concern and commitment can make big difference to these children and their families."
Haynes' compassion, her expertise and her resolve to help these vulnerable victims, day in and day out, are what prompted Executive Director Kristin Pavlik McCallie to nominate her for this year's Champion of Health Care honor.
"She supports each child with respect, dignity and insight," McCallie writes. "She supports children who come to the CAC because they have been told something is wrong with their bodies and they deserve the abuse they may have endured."
Haynes helps them understand that the abuse isn't their fault.
"This can be a turning point for children moving from victims to survivors," McCallie writes in her nomination letter.
Haynes earned her bachelor's degree in nursing from Tennessee Wesleyan University in 2008 and in 2012 graduated from Vanderbilt University's acute care pediatric nurse practitioner program with a master's in nursing. She has worked with children her whole career, joining the CAC in 2015. Haynes has earned five professional certificates/licenses and attends professional development conferences and programs regularly. Along the way, she married; she and her husband have two daughters, ages 4 and 6.
Over the past 11 years, Haynes has performed more than 2,000 child abuse exams.
Haynes noted one of the biggest myths about the work she and the CAC professionals do day in and day out is that people simply do not think child sexual abuse happens -- not to anyone they know or love. Child sex abuse is happening: One in 10 children will suffer before they are 18, she said. Abuse crosses all socioeconomic and demographic boundaries.
"Child abuse happens here in our community every single day," she says. "A lot of parents feel shame and blame themselves. They feel guilty. We hope by them and their child coming in, they know someone believes them. And that they know from disclosure to prosecution, the advocacy center is with them."
The more there is public acknowledgement -- and discussion -- about child sexual abuse, the less shame there will be, Haynes adds.
The CAC is located within the Family Justice Center on Uptain Road off Brainerd Road. The Chattanooga Police Department, the Hamilton County District Attorney and the Department of Children's Services have offices there as well, which helps with information sharing and coordination of services and follow-up, especially as law enforcement becomes involved.
Step inside the center and you will see its child-centered focus immediately: from the welcoming reception area, comfy chairs and sofas in nearby rooms and a wall of books, toys and snacks. Each area is designed with the child in mind. Beautiful, some whimsical, artwork decorates the hallway walls. Haynes' medical exam room sports a large, colorful mural.
The nature of Haynes' work is heart-wrenching, but she and her colleagues at CAC are steadfast in their commitment to making a difference in the lives of children who have been harmed.
"I want to be their bright spot, part of their healing," she says. "God put me where I was meant to be. I have no intention of doing anything else."
What do you do for relaxation/to beat stress?
This is one area that could use some work! Spending time with my family and even time alone in complete silence are two ways that help me cope with the traumatic personal stories we hear daily.
What led you to come a medical professional?
God created me to be a fixer and a helper, which are obviously helpful traits for a nurse. I always try to put others before myself -- helping and doing things for others is what I live for.
If you could choose another profession, what would it be and why?
I have always wanted to be a nurse, but I think I'd be a party planner if nursing didn't work out for me. I love planning my two girls' birthday parties each year and at this point, they expect me to go all out! Making them fell extra special and love with each new year of their life bring me great joy.