Weber-Morgan Children's Justice Center looks back at its first 20 years of fighting abuse

Apr 30 2011 - 10:12pm

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(Matthew Arden Hatfield/Standard-Examiner) Joan Hellstrom (left) talks about her role in starting Weber-Morgan Children's Justice Center in Ogden with Jodi Carlson, who was abused as a child.
(Matthew Arden Hatfield/Standard-Examiner) Joan Hellstrom (left) talks about her role in starting Weber-Morgan Children's Justice Center in Ogden with Jodi Carlson, who was abused as a child.

OGDEN -- Horrific stories about what local child victims of sexual abuse endured while seeking justice two decades ago are still fresh in the minds of those who sought change back then.

As the Weber-Morgan Children's Justice Center celebrates 20 years of service, founding supporters are discussing what ignited their passion for these kids as they petition the community for continued support for the sometimes expensive help they offer.

The center, 2408 Van Buren Ave., is designed to find the truth in allegations of abuse and be a place of comfort for victims and their families.

Roy Police Chief Gregory Whinham said his memory of a 15-year-old victim of sexual abuse who didn't have then what the center offers now spurred him to push for change.

"I live with this every day in my career with a commitment that I will never let this happen to another human being again," he said of the teen's experience.

As Whinham and another officer wrestled a gun away from the girl who was trying to take her own life, she disclosed the overwhelming sense of loss she felt because of her father's abuse.

But at that time, Whinham said, there was no program in place to help the girl effectively deal with her situation and she was taken home.

"In a matter of 12 hours, family members were able to get her to recant her story," Whinham said.

But her pain did not go away.

"One week later, to the day, on her father's bed, she used the same weapon and was successful in ending her life because of the abuse that she had received," Whinham said.

Whinham and other founders of the program tell of victims having to share their experiences over and over again, and in environments they found scary, often having to face the perpetrators in front of large groups of people.

Were the same scenario of that 15-year-old girl to occur today, Whinham said, he would immediately take the victim to the Weber-Morgan Children's Justice Center.

There, her story would be videotaped, she would receive a child-friendly evidence- collecting physical exam, and she and her family would have access to counseling, assistance and follow-up.

"At the (Children's Justice Center), they are able to talk about the things that have gone on in their lives that they probably wouldn't have said to anybody else," Whinham said.

"The center is a key part of keeping the child whole."

Rod Layton, director of the Children's Justice Center, said it's important to understand that abuse takes place in every religion, race and social class.

Each year, the center reaches close to 1,000 children, Layton said, but he doesn't believe that is enough.

"For every case reported to us, there are 10 cases that go unreported. We need to get the community to get involved in recognizing child abuse in their areas and their communities and making sure that abuse gets reported to the proper authorities," he said.

Reed Richards, chairman of the Utah Victim's Rights Committee, is known as the grandfather of the Weber-Morgan Children's Justice Center because he led much of the effort to establish the program.

"What it's all about is trying to focus on the victim and realize that's the most important part of the criminal prosecution, not just trying to convict and put away the perpetrator," he said. "If we don't lose sight of that fact, we'll do much better."

One mother told of taking her child to the center to tell about what happened to her.

"I often wonder what would have happened if we didn't have the center," the mother said.

"She walked out of that room knowing that she was a victim and she was OK. She walked out of that room with a smile on her face."

The mother said she hopes local residents realize that, someday, someone they know and care about will need this program.

Joan Hellstrom was one of those who worked to establish the center.

"Whenever I drive up to a Children's Justice Center, wherever I am, I know what's behind that door that wasn't there before. It gives me a sense of comfort and well-being to know that people are willing to keep that door open for a child."

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