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Staff photo by Ben Benton / Gina Presto, of the Marion County Children's Advocacy Center in Jasper, Tenn., talks about how the interview room at the center helps make alleged child victims comfortable enough to talk to investigators.

Officials in the six-county 12th Judicial District on Thursday celebrated the opening of a Children's Advocacy Center in Jasper, Tennessee, becoming the last judicial district in the state to open such a facility.

Until now, alleged victims in child abuse and sex crime cases in Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties had to be taken to centers in Bradley, Hamilton and Coffee counties for interviews, medical exams, counseling and after-care services, according to the new center's director, Kelli Craig.

"We've waited on this for a very long time," advocacy center board president Gina Presto said during dedication and grand opening activities on Thursday.

"We're finally here, and I appreciate all of you," she told board members, government officials and supporters.

Besides the satellite offices already planned in Rhea and Franklin counties, Presto said Sequatchie County now also will have a center in Dunlap.

Craig said she was thankful for other counties' willingness over the years to allow 12th Judicial District agencies to use their facilities.

"While they have been wonderful, those counties are swamped with cases of their own. And with the number of child abuse cases continuing to increase annually, they are becoming overwhelmed," Craig said in a letter sent to potential financial contributors to the center.

CHILD ABUSE AND SEX CRIME INVESTIGATIONS

Below is a list of the number of child abuse or sex crime cases investigated by each the 12th Judicial District’s six counties in 2020.

Bledsoe County: 160

Franklin County: 259

Grundy County: 129

Marion County: 311

Rhea County: 389

Sequatchie County: 250

District total: 1,498

Source: Twelfth Judicial District Children’s Advocacy Center

That leads to delays that could mean time-sensitive case information could be jeopardized, she said.

"This is a problem since, after time, children may forget important facts and details about the abuse and are often manipulated into saying things other than what really happened," she said. "All of this leads to less perpetrators of child abuse being convicted of the actual crime."

(READ MORE: Good Deed: Local chiropractor raises $1,100 for Children's Advocacy Center)

The center in Jasper has been staffed with its director for more than two years on private funds used for the director's salary, training, locating offices, fundraising and development of policies for staff, Marion County Sheriff's Office investigator and center board member Gene Hargis said Thursday.

"This has been a long hard struggle," Hargis said, thanking those who have supported the center so far.

He said state officials were doubtful the 12th Judicial District could operate even one center on private funds, much less three.

"The people of our six counties proved otherwise," he said.

The first real forensic interview was performed at the Jasper center in February and the facility has operated with a full staff since April, assisting more than 100 children so far, according to Hargis.

An average $90,000-$100,000 was raised for the first two years through fundraisers, donations and contributions from organizations like the local Catholic church, he said.

"All the money we raised was used for the director's salary and training and getting these three centers ready to go," he said.

But there is a less certain road ahead.

Grants will help fund a small portion of the centers' operations in the first year, Hargis said, but most funding going forward will come from fundraisers and private sources.

"It's going to be slightly less this year because of COVID and all the restrictions and, of course, we didn't have the cornbread festival, we didn't have the brew fest in South Pittsburg, we didn't have a lot of the things that we raise money at," he said. "We're going to try to put together a drive and approach some of our manufacturers here in the county to try to make up that difference."

During the dedication, Hargis spoke about what the centers mean to officers who investigate crimes against children.

"This building means a lot to me, but my partner, Beth Raulston, has worked child abuse cases in this county for a lot of years and she's an asset to the McMinn County Sheriff's Office, Marion County and any life that she touches," he said. "She's helped more children than most of us will ever know."

Hargis said it takes a special person to work criminal investigations involving children.

"Every time you work one of these child abuse cases it takes a little piece of your soul and a little part of your body," he said. "Beth wants to work these cases, and it's not something to be taken lightly because it weighs heavily on you. And for that reason, you'll notice on the front window this building will be called 'Beth's House.'"

Raulston was brought to tears.

"It's the biggest honor I've had since becoming a mom," said Raulston, child abuse and sex crimes detective for the Marion County sheriff's office.

The district's child abuse investigators now have a very valuable tool, according to Rhea County's Rocky Potter, a member of law enforcement since 1987.

Potter, the Rhea County Sheriff's Office child abuse and sex crimes investigator since 2002, said the centers will be a godsend for the district. He said Rhea County's office, which will also include domestic violence and adult sexual assault services, will hold a grand opening June 10 and begin operating June 11.

"Our numbers are so high we're having to use Bradley County's, Chattanooga's and McMinn County's [centers], which puts a big strain on them because they've got their own cases but they've always been good about making sure our kids are interviewed," Potter said Thursday.

Twelfth Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor was instrumental in getting the ball rolling, Potter said.

"About three years ago, our district attorney when he started realizing how much our numbers have grown and the fact that we were having to travel all over with these children, he signed off on us getting one so we formed a group of folks to try to find one or two locations in the 12th Judicial District," he said.

In Dayton, Rhea County Sheriff Mike Neal secured a spot in a space formerly held by the county health department. County commissioners approved the idea and "we've been working on it ever since," Potter said. "Our facility is going to be a family facility."

The children and their families are who the centers will help most, he said.

"We've had families that just couldn't afford the $20 in gas to drive somewhere. We're not allowed to give them a ride," Potter said.

"Sometimes we've actually had families that said, you know what, we just can't make the travel and don't take the child," he said. "We've had families that needed counseling or the child needed counseling but they couldn't drive back and forth out of county every week for the counseling.

"We've had children who didn't receive the counseling or didn't receive all the counseling that they needed," he said.

Now the county will have a tool that offers services never available before, he said.

Officials said the satellite office in Franklin County will officially open the week of June 14.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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