The David M. Clark Center for Safe and Healthy Children glitters like a gem in the late afternoon sunlight. From the outside, it could be a children’s library or a science museum, with its large windows trimmed in bright primary colored panels. Even the black steel perimeter fence doesn’t feel menacing, encircling a babbling water feature and flowering green space. A late-summer butterfly flutters among the autumn blooms.
You’d never know that the freshly painted rooms, still-new furnishings and ubiquitous baskets of stuffed animals and toys will daily witness the darkest secrets of abuse and neglect in our state come to light.
With this understanding, you feel the victims more than see them — sense shadows of their tentative, halting footsteps before you in the hallway leading to examining rooms where physicians confirm more cases of what should be unthinkable but is all too often simply another day in a child’s life.
Close your eyes, and you imagine their furtive, scattered glances or hollow, hundred-yard stares as they meet with law enforcement to help bring their abusers to account, even though to do so means describing acts that wrench the soul.
And on the upper floor, corridors full of therapy rooms’ closed doors seep anger and pain over what has been endured, while counselors begin the slow, measured process of reassembling the shards of victims’ lives, knowing a few will have their trust shattered again and again.
Ultimately, you don’t know whether to kiss the floor for the center’s being there or curse the very ground upon which it sits for being needed in the first place.
Dr. Karen Farst, director of the Rebecca and Robert Rice Medical Clinic, isn’t immune to this strange duality. She’ll tell you in the same breath how important it is to have the Clark Center and how great it would be for it to sit empty due to a lack of violated toddlers. Hers is a one-day-at-a-time attitude that lets her pour her heart into victims today knowing there will be 10 new ones peering timidly back at her tomorrow, as well as a shocking number of adults who once experienced abuse and never got help.
“I have so many moms who come through here and say, ‘This happened to me.’ And they either didn’t feel safe to tell, or they told and nobody believed them,” she says. “Abuse is out there, so you can either turn your back on it and pretend it’s not there, or you can find a way to try to make it better.”
She stops; she never intended to get into this field. She had planned to be a family physician, but she’s here anyway. Her tone is the steady cadence of those who have somehow cobbled together the ability to let the cause of child abuse into their core without the faces and stories unduly getting under their skin.
“We can’t go back and erase the abuse, but we can keep the abuse from continuing, and we can help victims deal with it in a healthy way,” she says. “The tangible part of this is to get kids the services that they need.”
Dedicated resources for child abuse medicine are still relative rarities. The Clark Center is the only one of its kind in Arkansas, and the medical programs that do exist are frequently underfunded, understaffed, under-spaced or a combination of the three. For years, the programs and services at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) for abused and neglected children were no different; the Clark Center’s preceding digs were so small, one person could run the check-in and monitor all the exam rooms simultaneously. It took the tenacity of the ACH Auxiliary and a dedicated staff to finally bring the need to the fore, punctuated by Clark’s family who donated $2.5 million to the project after his death.
At three stories and nearly 36,500 square feet, the $11.3 million Clark Center boldly changes that dynamic. Within the center, located at 12th and Battery streets, directly south of ACH, reside the Rebecca and Robert Rice Medical Clinic, Child Protection Center, Family Treatment Center and Child Study Center. Paid for entirely through philanthropy, another extreme rarity in medical facilities, the Clark Center was dedicated Aug. 11.
“Before, kids were falling through the cracks because they were having to go to different places, and we would lose them,” Farst says. “We know that when abuse happens, if we can intervene, get them safe and get them into trauma-focused therapy, they can actually have a good outcome.
Still, there’s no way to dress up the statistics, which say that for every abused or neglected child that comes forward — and there were 9,543 confirmed cases in Arkansas last year — there are two or three that are never brought to light. Farst says part of the issue is not knowing where to turn, particularly in the small rural corners of the state where such topics aren’t as readily talked about.
“If you think just of child sex abuse,” she says, “the national statistics say that we actually are making some headway, that the prevalence of sexual abuse has gone down. The problem is, it started really, really high, so it’s better, but it’s still a problem. I think we have definitely made a dent, though, even just from society’s viewpoint — making sure people know this is not OK, and it’s not just something that we should keep as a secret within our families.”
Child abuse and neglect know nothing of a family’s economic status, standing in the community, race or neighborhood. The people you greet most warmly in the next pew are just as likely to abuse as those with whom you avoid eye contact in a ramshackle part of town.
Sharilyn Gasaway knows this, knows that as impossible as it seems for such horrifying acts to be perpetrated within her plush gated community, the magazine-spread worthy homes here are hardly immune to humanity’s darker facets. But the degree to which it occurs initially stunned her.
“I think many people live in this happy world assuming abuse is not happening where they live,” she says. “I was shocked to learn about the prevalence of abuse in our state. I had no idea that it was as bad as it was and that it cuts across many different sections of society.”
Gasaway is the latest in a long line of crusaders who have taken up the cause of child abuse and neglect through the ACH Auxiliary. This group of indefatigable women with the resources and connections to match their resolve have pledged to raise $1.5 million to support the Clark Center over the next few years.
The mother of twins, Gasaway takes her involvement a step further, serving on the Arkansas Children’s Foundation’s executive committee and board of directors and the board of directors for Arkansas Children’s Inc., the governing entity for the pediatric health system.
In addition, she and her husband Brent are co-chairs for the 2016 Miracle Ball, the group’s gala fundraiser. This year’s event, scheduled for Dec. 10 and sold out for months, hopes to raise $300,000 for ACH’s projects and programs.
Gasaway says, “Miracle Ball has been the event that we always go to because it is the most important to us. This is the 11th annual Miracle Ball, and every year it’s so different. It creates this buzz each year. I think that’s been the most fun part about organizing it. That and hoping that we can change lives.”