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Harbor House: Serving the community by protecting its children

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Let’s imagine that little girl in Rome has told her mother that someone has been touching her in a way she doesn’t like or understand. She's being sexually molested.

The little girl is 7 years old and the mother immediately calls the police who take a report and assign an investigator to the case.

In Floyd County, the first thing the investigator will want to do is to contact Harbor House. It’s a pleasant, inviting house with colorfully painted rooms that serve a very important purpose.

The mother brings the little girl to Harbor House. The child plays in a brightly colored, sunlit toy room while her mother and the police investigator meet with Harbor House staff. She is then taken to an interview room where a friendly interviewer asks her about the abuse she has revealed to her mother.

The interviewer is a child advocate and is trained specifically to conduct this interview in a way that is least invasive and least traumatic to the little girl. All the while, the interview is being recorded and the police investigator is watching and listening in another room.

This will most likely be the only time the little girl will have to answer these questions again. The interview is done so well that any information the police or the Department of Family and Children Services need, will be available from this one interview.

After the interview, Harbor House staff will assess the needs of the child and the family which may include legal aid or counseling services and will continue to check up on the child’s wellbeing.

“This is why Harbor House has been a major part of Rome and Floyd County for 23 years now,” said executive director Joe Costolnick. “Unfortunately many residents simply do not know what Harbor House is or the services that are provided there. Simply put, Harbor House is a child advocacy center.”

“It’s a facility specifically designed to assist the police and DFCS with investigations pertaining to child abuse,” he added. “We see kids who are beaten or sexually abused and kids who are witnesses to sometimes very violent crimes. Harbor House provides a safe and friendly environment where children suspected to be the victims of sexual and/or physical abuse can be interviewed. Although the focus of Harbor House’s services is interviewing child abuse victims, the staff there are trained to provide much more to these victims and their families.”

Costolnick said Harbor House is most importantly a comforting, welcoming house. It’s not an intimidating atmosphere for a child. A police station might be a scary place for a kid. But Harbor House puts them more at ease and most importantly there aren’t a whole bunch of different people and groups asking the same questions over and over again, forcing the child to relive the trauma again and again.

The facility is designed with comforts for the child in mind, from the interior decorations, to the interview room setup, to the waiting area and the kid’s playroom.

But Harbor House’s role in the child’s wellbeing doesn’t end with the interview. Their assessment of the case continues throughout the entire investigation, sometimes lasting for months.

Harbor House also facilitates a weekly meeting consisting of the core members involved with any child abuse investigation. This team is referred to as the Multi-Disciplinary Team. During MDT meetings, each active child abuse case is reviewed to ensure that every agency involved is working together to provide timely and effective service to the clients involved.

They also provide family and child advocate services to clients on an ongoing basis. These services include education about the legal system, referrals to victim services available within the community, financial and nutritional assistance, medical assistance, and on-site mental health counseling — all free to the client.

Harbor House also provides educational information pertaining to child abuse prevention and awareness, and is a supporter of the Safety Awareness for Everyone Program taught throughout several elementary schools in Rome and Floyd County.

This program teaches children about safety awareness and assertiveness on all levels. Harbor House is also a supporter of Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children program, which teaches adults how to prevent, recognize, and react to child sexual abuse.

In addition to training and educational awareness, Harbor House participates in several community events throughout the year. These include certain Halloween-themed events where staff members will wear costumes and hand out candy, as well as informational pamphlets related to trick or treating safety. Harbor House is also a strong supporter of Child Abuse Awareness Month in April, and supports a wide variety of activities during this time each year.

The organization is a nonprofit 501c3 and an accredited member of both the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Georgia and the National Children’s Alliance, which provide certain funding each year. Harbor House is also funded through county dollars, victim focused grants, and community support in the form of financial donations. This support comes from individual and business donations as well as certain fundraiser activities conducted during the year, such as the annual Roman Rumble 5k/2-mile Health Walk.

But like other nonprofit organizations, Harbor House can’t rely on grants alone. Costolnick said he and his staff are grateful for any monetary donations from the community — whether from businesses or individuals.

“Financial donations are extremely important,” he said. “Without these community donations Harbor House would not be able to function. We are grateful for your support. The money you donate pays our bills, it pays for food and beverages for families, it pays for toys and interview equipment and it pays for therapy sessions for these children. We are passionate about what we do for the children and families of this community, but we can’t do it alone.”

Financial donations to Harbor House can be made by calling 706-235-5437 or checks can be mailed to P.O. Box 5143, Rome, Ga., 30162. Donations can also be made online at Harbor House’s Facebook page by searching “Harbor House The Northwest Georgia Child Advocacy Center.”