Four-legged confidant to help local children survivors talk through their trauma
Whenever someone walks into Kids Hope, a Children Advocacy Center in Moses Lake, it’s never for a positive reason – the children who walk through the organization’s doors are suspected victims of abuse, and letting someone else into that trauma is never an easy task.
Enter Valor, a calm and cuddly 2-year-old yellow lab, who’s in the last leg of a lifetime of training and whose job will soon simply be to sit with the children entering Kids Hope, to reassure them with a comforting presence.
It’s been almost a year since Kids Hope became an accredited Children’s Advocacy Center and a bit more than a year since the organization began providing services to children in the community. The organization, which sprang from its sister organization New Hope, acts like a hub for services to protect children who have survived abuse or neglect, Director Suzi Fode explained, where other organizations from Child Protective Services to mental health providers work with children at their facility.
If a child is in their offices, its because the child has been referred by CPS or law enforcement, and they need to come in for an interview to talk about what they experienced, typically with Kids Hope’s forensic investigators, but at times being interviewed by law enforcement or CPS agents. It is an inherently difficult process, and children are not always forthcoming.
“Those are crimes against children that are often so traumatic, and often based around threats not to tell, threats of secrecy, and children often carry that with them, even when they’ve been told this is a safe place,” Fode said. “Those secrets are so powerful, and sometimes we don’t get disclosures.”
The organization does a lot of work to try to put children at east when they walk in the door, with comfortable furniture, books and toys, as well as blankets, activities and Funfetti cake mix that they can make when they get back home. All of these things work to make the child associate their time at Kids Hope with comfort and safety, where they can let down their guard and speak openly.
But, Fode said, little is likely to have quite the same impact that she believes Valor will have. As children are brought into a small interview room, which is being monitored by observers in another room via cameras and a microphone, one of Kids Hope’s two forensic investigators will walk in and begin the interview. If staff believe it could be helpful, Valor walks in behind them, hops up onto the couch where the child is sitting, and rests his head on their lap.
While Valor is still in the middle of his last three months of training, where he is acclimating to Kids Hope and will be evaluated to make sure he’s settled in, he has already sat in on a handful of interviews, Fode said.
“Our very first interview that he was a part of, after the interviewer left to check in with the observers, the victim patted and petted Valor and said to him, with no one else around ‘I don’t know why he did those awful things to me,’” Fode said. “She hadn’t been as forthcoming during the interview, but that was pretty telling.”
Once Valor’s final certification is complete, and he earns his Facility Assistance Dog vest, he will also be able to travel with children to court, sitting by their feet as they take the stand and tell their stories to the court.
It’s been a long journey for Valor, who was born around two years ago in Australia for the School of the Blind, before being sent to Assistance Dogs of Hawaii when he was around eight weeks old. He attended “puppy school” until he was six months old, followed up by another round of intensive training until he was around two years old.
And, after years of intensive training, Assistance Dogs of Hawaii sold Valor to Kids Hope for only $500, a steal for what they were getting – in exchange, Kids Hope committed to using Valor to help their community, Fode said.
There were, of course, other costs involved with onboarding a specialized, professional pooch. Having heard about Kids Hope’s project, the Moses Lake branch of Gesa Credit Union decided to get involved in a major way. Using funds it sets aside each year for community outreach, Gesa paid for Suzi and another handler to train offsite to learn how to be good partners to Valor, a requirement to show Assistance Dogs of Hawaii that Kids Hope had a long-term commitment to the program, said Hannah Klaasen, Community Relations Specialist for Gesa.
Soon, Valor will be a new staple to the services available in the region for children who have survived abuse or neglect. For Fode, it’s a big step towards fulfilling Kids Hope’s mission to its community.
“We know that it’s going to make a difference for kids,” Fode said.
by EMRY DINMAN, Columbia Basin Herald – October 12, 2020