Tri-County Child Advocacy Center shows continued progress (from left) Marianne Bennink, Dr. Scott A. Rivkees, Stephanie Cox and Stacy Merritt are seen as Cox tells about the process that started years ago.
University of Florida Child Protection Team hosted an open house to show guests its renovated facilities in Chiefland.
These are some of the hors d'oeuvres. They were provided by SweetBerries of Gainesville.
This is a significant step as the team finalizes the process of becoming a full-fledged Child Advocacy Center to serve the children and families of the Tri-County Area (Dixie, Gilchrist and Levy counties). The U.F. Tri-County Child Advocacy Center, 15 N. Main St., in Chiefland is part of the whole of services available in that building, which is the Tri-County Community Resource Center. Stacy Merritt, who is the director of four resource centers, was present for the event.
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Merritt is in charge of resource centers in Fort White (Columbia County), two in Alachua County and the Tri-County Community Resource Center in Chiefland. Beverly Gooding of the Partnership For Strong Families is the manager of the Tri-County Community Resource Center in Chiefland, where there are many other services for needy people.
(from left) Dr. Scott A. Rivkees, Gilchrist County Court Judge Sheree Lancaster and Alliance Dairy Office Manager Charlie Smith pause a moment for a photo opportunity.
Stephanie Cox, the team coordinator for the University of Florida's Department of Pediatrics Child Protection Team, provided guests with information during some of those moments that herald the crossing of another threshold in the process that promises to bear final fruition in the near future. Previously, Tri-County Area families who need the Child Protection Team and subsequent action had to travel to Gainesville.
Beverly Gooding (left) and Sheriff Robert ‘Bobby’ Schultz III listen to Stephanie Cox share how happy she is to be standing in a facility where the U.F. Child Protection Team can help people from the Tri-County Area who will not have to drive to Gainesville. The building is provided by the Chiefland City Commission, which allowed for the creation of the Tri-County Community Resource Center in the former structure that used to house the Chiefland Building and Zoning Department.
Not only was that two-hour roundtrip a significant and relatively costly inconvenience for those families, but even the act of parking in Gainesville can create a hurdle to greatly reduce the probability of children and families receiving the help that is available. The staff of the U.F. Child Protection Team in Chiefland now includes Team Coordinator Cox, Assistant Team Coordinator Elizabeth Gutierrez, Senior Case Coordinator Hannah Conley, Senior Case Coordinator Mariny Coleman and Case Coordinator Erica Jones. At the open house on Thursday, Dr. Scott A. Rivkees was present and he shared his thoughts about the facility. Dr. Rivkees is the physician-in-chief of the UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital. He is a Nemours eminent scholar, as well as being professor and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics, U.F. College of Medicine.
During Cox’s opening address, she mentioned that Marianne Bennink, a licensed clinical service worker who lives in Bell, mentioned to Cox during a 2012 meeting about the need for a Child Advocacy Center to serve the people in the Tri-County Area, because of the distance between this rural setting and the metropolitan Gainesville area.
Circuit Court Judge James Colaw is seen at the event.
Bennink called Cox a couple of days later with locations to visit for this possible future facility. Since then, Cox said that she and Bennink, and Charlie Smith, the office manager of Alliance Dairy in Gilchrist County, and many other community advocates who have helped, have worked toward completion of this goal. Cox said that among the people she approached was Dr. Rivkees. He agreed that the U.F. Department of Pediatrics would support the mission to open a Child Advocacy Center to serve Levy, Dixie and Gilchrist counties separate from the one located in Gainesville. Cox said she is happy to have enjoyed working with Gooding and Diana Child of the Tri-County Community Resource Center, and to be able to locate the U.F. Tri-County Child Advocacy Center in the building. And thanks to the City Commission of Chiefland, she said, this building became useable. The Rotary Club of Trenton donated money for the attractive sign that is outside the Tri-County Community Resource Center, she added. Child Protection Team activity is happening in the center now, and Cox is in the process of completing requirements to make this center into a Child Advocacy Center. Clients for the Child Protection Team come only from law enforcement agencies or the Florida Department of Children and Families. The Child Protection Team interviews children and investigates cases. It makes a risk assessment and provides recommendations. Those case workers are able to testify in court when that is needed. The difference between the current status and when this becomes a Child Advocacy Center is more of an ability for long-term involvement in cases, she said. When Dr. Rivkees spoke, he said he was amazed that conversations at a kitchen table in the Bennink home could progress to become this reality. Dr. Rivkees also said he was happy to see Eighth Judicial Circuit Court Judge James Colaw, Gilchrist County Judge Sheree Lancaster and Gilchrist County Sheriff Robert “Bobby” Schultz III showing up for the open house. He sees this as another example of community support for the effort. The chairman of the pediatric department said it is unfortunate that Child Protection Teams and Child Advocacy Centers are needed. “In pediatrics,” Dr. Rivkees said, “we see a lot of good. But we also see some difficult things. And kids get hurt. And we have to keep kids from getting hurt. And we have to help the kids who are getting hurt.” The Child Protection Team program started at the University of Florida about 20 years ago, he said. As a result, many children and families have enjoyed futures that would have unfolded differently and in a less pleasant way without this assistance. Helping improve individual’s and families’ destinies has been achieved. The doctor said he hopes that 20 years from now there will be no need for the U.F. Child Protection Team. “Unfortunately,” he continued, “with humanity being what it is, we will (need the U.F. Child Protection Team).” He said that now it is great to see everyone working together to bring the Child Advocacy Center to reach a point of fulfillment in the near future. This is all about assuring that children can grow up having fun, becoming smart and enjoying a great future. “It takes a community to do this,” he said. “Thank you. Thank you for letting us partner with you.” Circuit Court Judge Colaw commented that in the past month in Alachua County he has seen cases where two to three children every day were being considered for removal from parental custody to become wards of the state. That recent average of two or three children every day, he said, is indicative of significant problems with children and families in Alachua County at this time.
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