By KEITH KINNAIRD
SANDPOINT — A new chapter is opening at one of Sandpoint’s most storied homes.
The McFarland House, the stately dwelling at the corner of S. First Avenue and Superior Street, is now home to the LillyBrooke Family Justice Center.
The home will serve as an advocacy center for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, although you would not gather that from the home’s comfortable appearance.
“We’re setting it up to look like a house. We just want that feel — like you’re coming to grandma’s house,” said Peggy Frye, victim witness unit coordinator for the Bonner County Prosecutor’s Office.
LillyBrooke, which is patterned after the national child advocacy center model, will serve as something as a hub for abused children in Bonner and Boundary counties.
Children who disclose abuse will be able to do so in a setting that is closer to a home than the sterile confines and pale lighting of an office space. The home will eventually fitted with an audio/video system that will allow children to make their disclosures in one room while a multi-disciplinary team monitors the interview from a different room.
The home will also be used for forensic examinations.
The idea is to bring law enforcement investigators, prosecutors, doctors and Idaho Department of Health & Welfare officials together to take account of disclosures without sending children and their family to various locations where they have to continually restate their accounts.
“They would all respond here. Instead of sending that kid to all those different agencies to speak to all those different people, everyone comes here,” said Frye.
The setup exerts less strain on children and families who are already going through strain in a trying situation. It also hoped to result in prosecutions that aren’t as easily picked apart by defense attorneys mining inconsistencies between kids’ accounts to various agencies in order to sow doubt in the minds of jurors at trial.
“When the kid is going to multiple different places and telling multiple people their story over and over again, you just end up with really fractured investigations and you’re burning the kid out,” Frye said.
The prosecutor’s office and Kaniksu Health Services pursued a $40,000 grant through the Idaho Council on Domestic Violence & Victim Assistance to establish the LillyBrooke Center. The grant mostly covers the McFarland House’s rent and utility fees. Labor is provided through the prosecutor’s office and Kaniksu Health.
Kaniksu Health Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer Kevin Knepper is hopeful the facility will ease the burden on child abuse victims and improve the outcome of criminal prosecutions.
Even in an emerging era of moral reckoning over sexual abuse facilitated by gross imbalances of power, it can still be difficult to shine a light on the subject of child sex abuse, said Knepper.
“There isn’t a whole lot of emphasis or passion truly, I think, for crimes against children. It’s ugly. People don’t want to talk about it. They’re afraid of it. They’re not comfortable with it,” said Knepper.
But there is passion in the prosecutor’s office as evidenced by Prosecutor Louis Marshall’s determination to prosecute child sex crimes and Frye’s determination to establish a leading-edge child advocacy facility that sidesteps an institutional setting.
“If she wasn’t doing it, it wouldn’t be happening here,” Knepper said of Frye’s efforts.
Knepper, who suffered abuse as a child and went on to adopt children removed from abusive homes, said there is more power behind being open about abuse than shying from it.
“There’s power in being able to say it and I think it turns you from a victim into someone empowered to do something about it,” Knepper said.
Marshall said protecting children in Bonner County has largely been the focus of his career and he harbored no doubts that LillyBrooke was a worthwhile endeavor.
“It didn’t take any convincing at all. I knew that this would be great. Hoewever, I’m kind of blown away at what a great job Peggy has done,” Marshall said.