Owens House raises awareness, seeks funds at Pelham City Council

Published 4:24 pm Friday, June 21, 2024

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By DONALD MOTTERN | Staff Writer

PELHAM – Representatives from Owens House spoke to the Pelham City Council on the night of Monday, June 17 to raise awareness and seek assistance in the provision of their mission to protect children in Shelby County.

Based in Columbiana, Owens House serves the entirety of Shelby County and currently sees Pelham as the third largest jurisdiction aided by their efforts, with the first being unincorporated Shelby County and Alabaster in second.

“The vision is simple,” said Shaun Styers, chief juvenile probation officer for Shelby County Alabama. “It is to stop child abuse here in Shelby County. And we do it one step at a time”

Founded in 1993, the mission of Owen’s House as an organization is to equip and empower children in ways that allow and let them know how to speak out about their trauma related to physical and/or sexual child abuse.

“I think everyone can agree that no child should suffer abuse—sexual or physical—no child should have to deal with that,” Styers said. “That is why we are here. One in 10 children have been a victim of some kind of physical or sexual abuse by the time they are 18. I look back at the work that I’ve done with Owens House as a district attorney and I look back to why Owens House is so important to me—and that is because I am one of those one in 10.”

Styers credited the work done by Owens House as making a systematic difference in the lives of children in Shelby County and pointed out that the results of their efforts are seen every day in the juvenile court program.

Owens House primarily consists of four components that work toward the same goal. The first being the practice of conducting forensic interviews with the child. Those interviews are brought about as the result of a referral, which normally originate from law enforcement entities or the state or county department of human resources as the result of allegations.

“From their referral comes the response (in the form of) a forensically sound interview,” Styers said. “It is a structured, fact-finding conversation with a child that is developmentally appropriate, on their level and under their language.”

Those interviews are recorded and entered into the record. This forensic interview structure is codified within the state law of Alabama as an unfunded mandate and the forensic interview operates as the child’s only statement of record during the entire court proceeding.

“It used to be that whenever a child made an allegation they would have to report it up to 30 different times—to 30 different people—about what happened to them,” said Maribeth Owens, program director and forensic interview specialist for Owens House. “We were finding in court that the cases which were not being resolved was adding more trauma to the child and to the family. Up in Huntsville they created children’s advocacy centers (to address this issue) and now there are over 1,000 children’s advocacy centers throughout the country and it all started here in Alabama.”

Styers also stipulated that the forensic interviews are the strongest way to hold bad actors accountable and that their careful administration also serves to weed out false accusations and solidly build up and establish cases where actual crimes and trauma have occurred.

“The investigation—when performed with a forensically-sound interview—can do all sorts of things, including the discovery of new evidence that we otherwise wouldn’t know,” Styers said. “The forensic interview allows us to find corroborative evidence that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

Owens House also serves as the primary hub for the center’s multi-disciplinary team—made up of 63 currently active members that oversee the forensic interviews in its coverage area.

Owens House features one of the largest and most robust teams in the entire state according to Bowman, and features representatives from every school system in the county, including Pelham City Schools. Along with representatives from local and county law enforcement agencies, the district attorney’s office, DHR and the juvenile court program, Owens House also incorporates representation from mental health professionals and child abuse experts from Children’s Hospital in Birmingham that serve toward their mission.

The organization also focuses toward family advocacy that offers food and essential services to victims and their families as they proceed through investigations and the processes handled by Owens House. Evidence-based counseling is also provided free of charge to victims if it is requested and necessary.

Prevention education is another key component of the children’s advocacy center and one that is seen as crucially important to Styers and other members.

“This is the thing that I wish existed when I was in kindergarten and through third grade—then maybe I would have known a little bit more and known better (about what was going on),” Styers said. “Owens House is partnering with Shelby County Schools and Pelham City Schools in order to provide prevention education.”

According to Styers, this education will seek to educate children in appropriate ways that allow them to know what is okay and what is not okay. This includes informing children what situations constitute “safe” touches and “non-safe” touches along with other evidence-based curriculum that includes internet safety courses in middle schools.

Performing these services in Shelby County and extending them to accommodate as many individuals needing the help as possible requires funding. Forensic interviews have an estimated cost of $175, and according to Styers, their provision saves Pelham and Shelby County law enforcement a lot of money when compared to the alternative of relying on a nonprofit organization. The counseling services, which are provided free of charge and as many times as desired, have an additional estimated value of $125 a session and compound with the additional costs associated with providing family advocacy efforts and processes completed by MDTs.

“Our funding is about $500,000 a year and we (serve) 56,000 children—Jefferson County has about three times as (many children) and they have about $200,000 more a year than we do, yet they do less forensic interviews, less cases, their counseling is roughly on par with ours and we have about the same amount of human trafficking cases.”

Based on Styer’s accounting, Montgomery County also has a budgetary advantage over Shelby County in the range of $250,000 more a year than Shelby County. Despite that shortfall, Styers said that Shelby County manages two-and-a-half times the forensic interviews of Montgomery County.

“We use the funds we are given incredibly efficiently in the service of the people of Shelby County,” Styers said. “We want to talk about building the future and we obviously can’t (make progress) without more funding.”

Despite the necessity of these services, Owens House and all children’s advisory councils across the state are currently expecting a federal funding cut by a range of 40 to 60 percent.

“The only way we are going to be able to continue to deliver high quality cases to the district attorney and high-quality investigations for law enforcement is to actually invest in it from our own communities,” Styers said.

Styers asked everyone in the Pelham community to raise awareness of the work that Owens House accomplishes and to bring everyone together to help fund the mission. To the city of Pelham, Styers and Bowman personally asked the City Council to consider putting forth $10,000 in funds toward Owens House.

That number was influenced by a recurring investment made by the city of Chelsea, who put forth $10,000 starting two years ago.

“We are asking for all of our municipalities to add that (to their budgets)—and to then give a continuing gift,” Styers said. “The value we are able to add to Pelham and Pelham law enforcement and the cases that come from that, I think as a former DA, are absolutely invaluable.”

While no direct decision was announced by the Council, multiple members of the Council provided direct words of support to Styers, Bowman and the men and women who perform services at Owens House.

“The Bible talks about different levels of hell,” Pelham Councilmember Chad Leverett said. “I think that people who do this stuff to children are going to receive punishment like nobody else. For what you guys have to do on a daily basis—and see and hear—I just want to let you know that I appreciate what you do. Thank you for everything that you do for these kids.”