With a passion for child advocacy, Merideth Erickson, PhD fits right into her new role as the executive director for the Children’s Alliance of South Texas.
Better known as CAST, the Child Advocacy Center opened in Floresville in 2013. Its mission is to provide a place where the trauma ends and healing and justice begin. CAST provides services to children who are suspected victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect and for children who have witnessed a violent crime.
Born in Corpus Christi and raised in Bishop near Kingsville, Erickson moved to New Braunfels in 2011. For the last five years, she served as the executive director for River City Advocacy in New Braunfels, a non-profit organization that provides mental health services.
Erickson helped the organization grow immensely. When she left River City Advocacy, the grant fund increase was over 1,000 percent. She helped to create programs, add services and expand outreach.
“I created community engagement activities and contracts with school districts to provide services in the schools and partnered with other non-profit organizations, like Communities in Schools, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, the child advocacy center there, the crisis center there in New Braunfels and just created those kinds of lasting relationships,” said Erickson.
She served on the Comal County Sexual Abuse Response Team and was the vice-president of that board. She also served on the Child Fatality Review Team for Comal County. A similar program will be starting soon in Wilson County.
“What we do is we review all of the fatalities for children 17 and under- natural deaths, suicides and accidental deaths. We try to see if there are some common scenarios or commonalities.”
The group worked to figure out ways to prevent future deaths. Erickson explained that in Comal County, drowning in the river accounts for most accidental deaths. They noted that it occurred with visitors from out of town, but because the death occurred in Comal County, they still looked at that and investigated. Some of the solutions included speaking with the Chamber of Commerce about signage and water safety education.
Erickson also discussed looking at the suicide rate for children between the ages of 10-17-years of age, over the last four years and trying to figure out a pattern.
“Some of the common things that we saw were the results of bullying outside the home, but also within the family unit, broken homes, things like that, really wanting to see what we can do to prevent future children from committing suicide. There are many facets of children’s mental health that I have been involved in over the years,” Erickson said.
“I am a survivor myself, so I have always had a heart and always wanted to do something, whether it would be through board service for the local Child Advocacy Center, or just partnering to help kiddos,” she added. “The growth has been pretty phenomenal to go from this office here in Floresville, to now having a satellite office in Cotulla. We are going to be opening our office in Atascoa County in Jourdanton, in January.”
CAST serves Frio, Karnes, La Salle, Wilson and Atascosa County and covers 54,000 square miles.
An intake coordinator gets the cases and referrals are from either law enforcement or Child Protective Services. CAST schedules the forensic interviews, which are done at the center. CAST makes sure that children don’t have to tell their story more than once, so they are not re-traumatized.
“Then we do a referral for counseling, in-house at no cost to the children, siblings and their non-offending caregivers,” said Erickson.
Erickson, CAST staff and volunteers do everything they can to make them feel comfortable, safe and reassured. They give children the opportunity to just be children again, by playing, laughing, etc.
CAST also helps to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“It is something that is a really important aspect of what we do. We provide as much support to law enforcement as we can. Through the interviewing process, law enforcement and CPS or whoever needs to be involved, is witnessing the interview in a private room. It’s really great to be able to offer that service here,” said Erickson.
The Jourdanton office will offer the same services, just on a smaller scale of what is available in Floresville. They will have counselors, family advocates and forensic interviewers at the Jourdanton office. They will be there five days a week to provide the services.
“We are already providing counseling over there. If an interview needs to happen we either try to find a location there, or we bring them here to have that interview done, Erickson said.
Looking at the numbers and statistics throughout the five-county region, CAST saw a huge need in Atascosa County to have an advocacy center located there.
“We were having to go over there so much and then having law enforcement bring the kids here for interviewing. That is one of the things to prevent so much travel, and prevent from having them transported here and there. We will be able to have the interviews there, on-site. If they need a physical examination, then they will be referred to the hospital. We do have the equipment here to do those acute examinations. We have contracted with Christus and we have the nurses that are specially trained to do the SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) exams.”
Just for November in Atascosa County, CAST did 15 forensic interviews. Their total for all of the counties combined was 43.
“Just in November, we saw 15 children. We did 27 counseling sessions, and then the total for all of the counties, we saw 57 kids and we did 143 therapy sessions, just in November. Fortunately, we did not have to do any of the exams. We also help the adults (their parents, the non-offending caregivers), so we saw 20 individuals and we did 49 sessions there.”
For the quarter in Atascosa County, Erickson explained there were: 66 interviews, 26 children enrolled in therapy for 88 sessions. We did four SANE exams and 19 adults enrolled in therapy. Out of those 19, there were 47 sessions.
“Those are big numbers,” said Erickson.
Total numbers for the quarter for all counties combined was: 183 interviews, 87 children enrolled in therapy, 405 sessions for children, 8 SANE exams, 69 adults enrolled in therapy and 186 therapy sessions for the adults.
“The numbers are staggering. It is one of those things that you know happens, but until you are involved, you don’t really realize the true impact,” Erickson said.
“For Atascosa County for the whole year, we are looking at close to 200 kids, close to 200 of the forensic interviews,” she added.
CAST creates a safe haven for children, that is warm, friendly and inviting.
“We engage with them. We sit and read books. We color with them. We do everything we can to help them feel at ease.”
Erickson wants to put an end to the myth that child abuse does not happen, or that it is not happening here.
“It is unfortunate that it does happen. One in six boys experience some form of sexual abuse and one in four girls experience it before they are 18,” Erickson shared.
This sheds light on society’s tendency to forget that boys are also sexually abused.
“It happens and it crosses all socio-economic backgrounds. There is no discrimination in abuse. It touches everyone. There is a lot of stigma associated with it. People think, if we don’t talk about it, it will just go away. There is shame and self-stigma.”
Erickson added many victims fear they will not be believed.
“We absolutely take every case seriously. Every phone call that we get we take 100 percent seriously. We do everything we can and that is one of the things that is so great about what we do.”
The center also helps in educating others, by participating in community awareness events and explaining the signs of abuse. They also talk to teachers about the signs of abuse and about reporting such cases.
“We always tell them, keep telling people until somebody believes you. And it is okay to say no and your body is your body. We see all kinds of things here, from physical to sexual abuse, or they may have witnessed a crime. Pictures might have been taken and put on the internet. or they are just at risk of being abused, or there is neglect,” Erickson said.
Another issue is human trafficking, where for example, a runaway is picked up by an older adult and then they are trafficked. CAST offers the compassion to help those children. They coordinate with law enforcement, CPS and with the judicial system and do everything to make sure they can work with unique needs and help the children tell their story.
“The fact that it is viewed in a separate room and the information is given and notes are taken so the child doesn’t have to go and tell the story five or six different times, that is really important.”
CAST also offers seminars free of charge on “Recognizing and Reporting Child Abuse.”
Erickson thinks how there was a time when CAST didn’t exist. She can’t imagine all of the children and families that have come through the doors not having a place to go.
She also shared how trauma early in life often carries over into adulthood.
“There is a lasting impact that trauma has on children. My experience with working with adults in the mental health field, is that 85 percent of adults who are receiving professional mental health treatment have a history of being abused as children,” Erickson said.
“Hopefully, what we have done is help break the cycle of abuse. We can play a small, but pivotal role in stopping the abuse from happening, so in the future they will not turn into abusers themselves.”
For more on CAST, call the Floresville office at 830-393-6290 or visit www.castcac.org on the web.