Candace Findley, a forensic interviewer with Healing Hearts Child Advocacy Center on Getwell Road in Southaven, is among a team of dedicated children's advocates at the Center, a United Way agency.

Robert Long|DTT

Children are the the world's most precious resource but all too often their lives are adversely affected by sexual and emotional abuse.

The Healing Hearts Child Advocacy Center in Southaven is leading the way in the Mid-South to shield and protect children, the most vulnerable of all victims of sexual, emotional and physical abuse.

"Every service we provide is free," said John Hornsby, who serves on the Board of the Directors for the Healing Hearts Child Advocacy Center. "We take in and counsel with children who have been abused."

Darlene Cunningham, Family Advocate for Healing Hearts Child Advocacy Center, said all too often the subject of sexual or physical abuse involving children is taboo and discussion is avoided.

"It's a subject that is hard for people to hear about," said Cunningham, in a recent address to the Rotary Club of Hernando.

Cunningham said the Healing Hearts Child Advocacy Center, a United Way agency, conducts forensic interviews with children ages 3-17.

Healing Hearts Child Advocacy in Southaven also conducts interviews with clients in Tunica and Marshall counties.

"In Northwest Mississippi, we are the closest center to many children and families," Cunningham said. "There is a big gap. We get a lot of calls from Sunflower and Bolivar counties. They want to make sure their children are safe. The children who seek Child Protective Services often don't have a voice. You wouldn't want your child to have to go to a police station, so that's where we come in, where they feel free to talk to someone in a non-threatening environment. A lot of these children need medical help."

Cunningham said once a child is in the agency's system, they are closely monitored.

"The children can come weekly for counseling, even if if they have no insurance or through Medicaid," Cunningham said. "We tap into grants and have fund raisers. We also get funds through the United Way through payroll contributions. We are the first new United Way Agency in the State of Mississippi in eight years."

Cunningham said cases with merit are presented to the grand jury for deliberation.

"We have to get the child in within 72 hours of the alleged incident of abuse," Cunningham said. "It's a neutral, family-friendly setting. Sixty-five percent of the cases involve family members who are perpetrators. If they (children) have to go to court to testify, we would be there with them."

Cunningham said the Healing Hearts Child Advocacy Center sees more than 400 children a year, compared to 266 the first year the Center was open. "We saw 371 last year. More reports are being made every day."

Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.

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