The Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas have changed the lives of thousands across the state, and one of those people is Shelley McMillon, a tireless volunteer who has shouldered the burden of child abuse victims throughout her community.
McMillon wasn’t prepared for what was in store for her at her first meeting of the Benton County Children’s Advocacy Center. She didn’t expect what she learned that night to inspire nearly a decade of service to the community through the organization.
But most of all, she wasn’t prepared to come face-to-face with the cold, hard facts about the prevalence of child abuse in her community, one of the most affluent areas of the state.
“A friend of mine who was on the board invited me to come out [to the meeting],” McMillon recalls. “When I heard the statistics — that now one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused — I was just overwhelmed with that information."
McMillon joined the board that night, a turning point in the organization’s history. Over the next eight years, the Missouri native and former elementary school teacher would serve in every one of the officer posts. Throughout her tenure, public awareness was her mission, both to inform the community and to help raise the funds that support the county CAC , one of 17 that now dot the state.
“[CAC Benton County] was a very new organization then, it had only been in business since 2000,” she says. “It was a slow reach-out process just to let the community know we were even there. I think over the years we have accomplished a lot of awareness, and we’ve got education in schools now to help children know what’s going on.
“Generally, it's not a 'stranger danger' situation; these are people who they love and admire and look up to that are doing this to them.”
Her passion for the cause of ending child abuse became a family affair. Shelley and her husband, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, chaired the 2016 Cherishing Children Banquet where they invested more than their time and connections. The couple pledged to match donations up to $50,000 and then kicked in an additional $50,000 of their own to benefit the cause.
“You think about how many kids are at your house all the time and how many children I’ve been around in my life,” Shelley says of her motivation to volunteer. “You want to get involved.”
The Benton County organization is part of the Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas, in turn a member of the National Children’s Alliance. A nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting children in crisis, Arkansas' CAC provides one-stop services for victims. The county CACs provide a single location for the various services that follow a report of child abuse, helping to lessen the stress of medical evaluations and police reporting that makes the trauma a child is going through even worse.
“When someone calls the child abuse hotline, an investigator takes the child to one of our centers and they can receive their forensic interview,” says Elizabeth Pulley, executive director of the state group. “They’re able to feel comfortable in a child-friendly environment. If a medical exam is needed, they can receive their medical exam and not have to go from the police station to the hospital to other offices. It can be done in one location.”
According to the Child Welfare League of America’s 2017 summary of children in Arkansas, there were more than 52,000 referrals for child abuse and neglect statewide in 2015. Of these, more than 33,000 were referred for investigation.
Just more than 9,000 child abuse victims were identified, or 13 per 1,000 children, which was a 17 percent decrease from 2011, but a nearly three percent increase over the previous year. More than half of these children were victims of neglect, 22 percent were physically abused and 21 percent were sexually abused. In 2015 alone, 40 Arkansas children died from abuse.
Report suspected cases of child abuse or neglect to the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline:
1.844.SAVE A CHILD or 1.800.482.5964.
The state's CAC network helps ensure children are evaluated in a safe, calming place that starts with having a one-stop location reasonably close to their home. It serves children up to age 18 who are victims of abuse or have witnessed violence in the home, such as a parent being killed or the victim of domestic violence.
“If we’re able to bring a child to our center, that’s the best-case scenario instead of having an interview in the back of a police car or having to come all the way to Children’s Hospital to get a medical exam,” Pulley says. “That’s scary for a child. To make it not as scary is to come to a friendly environment where people are properly trained in how to make the kid feel comfortable.”
The state group doesn’t build the centers; they're run by local entities that determine how such programs would be administered and paid for.
“There are multi-disciplinary teams in almost every county,” Pulley says. “It could be state police, it could be law enforcement in the area, a prosecutor, it could be medical, mental health, it could be DHS, too. It’s a combination of all of these that sit down together for a meeting and talk about what the best steps for children are.
“That team can help develop a center with community support. If they feel like a center needs to be there, they can recommend that. Community support is so important because of the fundraising. And that’s how a center is started.”
Pulley says a priority for the future is to increase access in areas of the state that are underserved. To that end, the state organization is looking at several creative solutions to the problem.
“We are developing a growth and development plan right now to target areas that we feel need coverage based on the number of cases in that county and also the drive distance for a child to get to one of our centers,” she says. “Right now, our whole state is covered, but we still don’t want the child to have to go over an hour to get to a center, so we’re considering satellite locations.
“We’re also looking at some out-of-the-box ideas in rural parts of the state with mobile units. The mobile unit would go to areas to serve children in a way that’s still a child-friendly environment for them to come in. We pull up in a safe spot and can interview a child there. We’re looking at that pretty seriously now and we hope to have one in place in the next year.”
For her work on behalf of CACs, McMillion has been named the organization's 2018 Woman of Inspiration honoree. As she prepares to step down from the board, McMillon sees a lot that’s been accomplished within the county organization, from raising funds to increased awareness about CAC crisis programs. She’s also advocated for better understanding on the part of responsible adults as to the warning signs of a child experiencing abuse.
It wasn’t always an easy message to get across; from bridging cultural differences to the subject matter itself, it’s been a journey with substantial hurdles.
"We’ve tried to introduce diversity into our message and we’ve brought some diversity onto our board. But it is hard,” McMillion says. “People just don’t want to believe that their own group can do that. I don’t want to believe people in my own socio-economic group can do that, either. So that’s been a big challenge.”
As for people who fear reprisal over reporting something they believe to be child abuse, McMillon’s tone turns very direct.
“I’d say to them, ‘Follow your instincts,’” she says. “It’s better to check it out and make sure that nothing did happen than to let it go and let it scar that child’s life. [Abuse] is something that can change the perspective of a person forever. It's something that could even cost them their life. So go with your gut, report. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
The Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas 2018 Woman of Inspiration
Oct. 19 | Statehouse Convention Center
Tickets + Info: CACArkansas.org