Morgan Child Advocacy Center gives kids 'safe place to talk about their abuse'

·7 min read

Oct. 17—As the executive director of the Morgan County Child Advocacy Center, Misty Cowger wishes her nonprofit organization was not needed, but is happy children have a safe, non-judgmental place to talk and receive help and a place where she knows she makes a difference.

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The CAC's annual budget is $379,127, and 75% of that goes to the staff as salaries and benefits. The other 25% is used for training, supplies and the facility dog Jezebel's supplies.

Cowger has always worked with nonprofit organizations. She was a program manager for Goodwill Industries when she lived in Texas and helped homeless individuals find jobs.

She worked as a victims' advocate at the CAC when she moved to Alabama, before moving to North Carolina and becoming the East Coast case worker for a global anti-human-trafficking organization.

When Cowger moved back to Alabama, she again worked for the CAC, this time as the executive director. Cowger has worked for the CAC for just under seven years total, including about three as director.

Cowger says the CAC's mission in Morgan County is to provide help and healing to children by being "truly a safe place for a child to talk in a non-judgmental atmosphere."

The following interview with Cowger was edited for clarity and length.

Question: How have you seen your organization be effective?

Answer: We have seen children truly healed and get better. I think that's the one thing about the CAC that keeps most of us going is that, yes, we do hear the hard things, we see the trauma that children experience, but from day one, until the day they're done with therapy, sometimes there is just such a distinct difference that you can see in kids. ... Seeing kids get healed and go on and live productive lives, and happy lives, I think that's the biggest thing for us.

Q: How does your organization impact the community?

A: We provide services to kids in Morgan County between the ages of 3 and 18. We provide all of our services absolutely free. ... Sadly, we know child abuse is happening in Morgan County, even if we don't want to really think about it or talk about it. And because we are here, we're able to give children that safe place to talk about their abuse but then we're also able to provide treatment to them. So, we provide therapy services, and we provide something called trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy which is the gold standard in therapy for kids that have experienced trauma. ... Last year we provided 929 sessions at no cost to kids in Morgan County. ... I can tell you more times than not, children are more willing to tell us, as strangers, things they don't even feel comfortable telling their parents. I think we just provide that opportunity for them so they can tell their story, whatever that is.

Q: Why did you get involved with nonprofits?

A: I think that I was always a social worker at heart, even as a child. I was the child that always wanted to stand up for the child that needed help or that had a need in some way. ... Then when I was in college, I really didn't know what I wanted to do, and I took a social work class as an elective. Somehow there was an epiphany that, oh, you can be a helper as a job. ... So, right out of college, I started looking for nonprofits that were hiring in our area. The first nonprofit that I was connected to was a nonprofit that assisted victims of crime. After I saw the impact that it made, I was hooked. OK, I can make a difference, I can make an impact in my community.

Q: Have you ever been personally impacted by your organization?

A: The first case that I worked with a child with Jezebel, that child was very fearful being here. ... The child was just scared and didn't want to talk to anybody. I finally went out and I asked, I said, do you like dogs? There was no verbal response, they just shook their head. So I said, well, I actually have a dog and her name is Jezebel and I'll go get her. ... We saw that child transform truly, from a kiddo that was hiding behind the door because they did not want to come out and talk ... to going back in the interview room and talking for, I want to say an hour, about the things they had experienced. Truly, in that moment, I remembered, this is why we do what we do. We have little stuffed animals that look like Jezebel, and we gave the child one and I heard from the child's caregiver, maybe a week or so after, I was told the kiddo had been sleeping with the Jezebel stuffed animal every night. It just kind of reaffirmed, ok, this is why she's here. This is why we do what we do, to make an impact so that children can have the availability to talk about the things that happened to them in a safe place.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing your organization?

A: Truly, funding would be one of the big ones. Just like everyone else, we've been impacted by COVID. The big way we saw is not necessarily that child abuse stopped happening, because it didn't, but our funding and our fundraising the last year or two, we've shifted to doing online fundraising and just trying to be creative with that. At the federal level, this last fiscal year, there were several millions of dollars cut from the Victims of Crime Act, which is one of our main funding sources. So really, for us to be able to do what we do, obviously funding is very important.

Q: What is the process through which you get a case of child abuse?

A: The process that we don't necessarily see is somebody calls either DHR or a local law enforcement and says that something has either happened, or a child has disclosed, or maybe witnessed something traumatic. DHR or law enforcement, they in turn contact us, and they say, here's the situation, and then we schedule what's called a forensic interview. During that process, we have a victim advocate that meets with the non-offending caregiver and goes through all of the services provided, all the resources that are available to them, their rights throughout this process. Then that advocate follows up with that family throughout the duration of the criminal justice process. After the interview, DHR and law enforcement, they take that information, and they continue their investigation. ... We don't make the determination of if the children are removed from their homes or if someone gets arrested. ... We provide all the support services. We provide the advocacy during that process, we provide trauma-focused therapy, Jezebel's available. ... If and when they go to court, we're able to go to court with them. ... Therapy, it's usually four to six months or so, depending on the child and the trauma.

Q: What are your responsibilities?

A: I oversee the direct day-to-day operations of the agency, and then I also still provide victim advocacy services to some clients. I am a trained forensic interviewer although I am not one of our main interviewers right now. The biggest direct service right now for me is our facility dog, Jezebel. I am her handler, which means I take care of her, she lives with me, and any services that she's involved in, I'm involved in those as well, helping coordinate those and making sure that it's appropriate for her to be involved in those.

—erica.smith@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2460.

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