Under the leadership of Karrie Damm, nonprofit agency in Oswego takes on a crippling threat to youngsters: child abuse
By Lou Sorendo
Success isn’t always about dollars and cents. Oftentimes, the number of lives one saves is a more accurate measurement.
With sites in Fulton and Pulaski, the Child Advocacy Center of Oswego County is a nonprofit organization that serves as a safe, child-friendly site for the investigation, prosecution and treatment of child abuse.
Guided by executive director Karrie Damm, the agency confronts one of the most challenging aspects of society: child abuse.
The CAC attempts to provide a cushion for youngsters who arrive to tell their stories.
“One of the major things we do here is try to take something that is potentially a really scary thing and make them feel comfortable,” said Damm at the CAC’s Fulton site, 163 S. First St., Fulton.
The key is to make them understand “that they are not the only ones. Plenty of kids come in here and have to talk about bad stuff that happens,” she said.
Upon entering the facility, a chalkboard wall greets visitors and allows children to literally write on the walls. While children are waiting, they have the opportunity to interact with age-appropriate toys, play sets and puzzles.
This environment is in stark contrast to the space devoted for forensic interviews.
Youngsters coming in for the first time will most likely meet with members of the local multi-disciplinary team that includes personnel from Oswego County-based law enforcement agencies, Child Protective Services, the district attorney’s office and the CAC’s own forensic interviewer — Aimee May — who works on site.
The forensic interview involves collecting facts associated with “difficult” crimes against children, such as child abuse, child sexual abuse and physical abuse, Damm said.
Children meet with May, a military veteran and retired sergeant with the Fulton Police Department.
May is a “very neutral, friendly person who is also very direct in getting details, so we know what kind of charge there is, or if there are no charges involved,” Damm added.
Adjacent to the interview room is an observation area attended by law enforcement personnel who want to know details such as how often the alleged incident occurred and where it occurred.
This information is critical when questioning the alleged perpetrator, and is vital in terms of the type of charges an alleged perpetrator may be facing as well.
The CAC features victim advocates on staff that then meet with parents of youngsters aged 2-18 in age-appropriate settings.
However, the CAC can offer therapy for patients up to age 21 or older if they have a developmental disorder or are neurodivergent.
As of mid-August, CAC had conducted 70 interviews this year, which is about two children coming forward to tell of a crime every week.
Damm dons a pin which says, “One too many.”
Nationally, studies show that one out of every 10 children is abused before his or her 18th birthday.
Another startling statistic is that someone the victim liked, lived with or loved abused the child more than 90% of the time.
“It could be a best friend’s dad, or maybe also their family member,” Damm said. “And they had access to them.”
Part of the forensic interviewing process involves a non-emergent medical exam. That is when a medical practitioner collects data and DNA, looks for scarring and bruising, and determines if the child is healthy or not, or whether they require further treatment.
Damm said a clean bill of health bodes well from a mental health perspective as well.
“If they know no one is going to tell they were abused by just looking at them, then they are better off,” she noted.
Oswego County-based child abuse cases that come through the New York State Office of Children and Family Services’ Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment or through law enforcement get reviewed at the CAC in order to establish services that victims require.
The number of children that are treated at the CAC varies year to year. The highest-ever year was 525 children. Last year, it was down to 468.
Damm noted the number fluctuates between 450-550.
As of mid-August, the staff at CAC had handled more than 1,500 therapy sessions this year.
CAC has four therapists on site in additional to three interns. It formerly ran its Pulaski location with its current staff, and that will change thanks to a $1.3 million grant the CAC received from the state Office of Victim Services that is expected to kick in Oct. 1.
Damm noted the grant will enable the agency to increase its organizational capacity in Fulton and also fully staff the North Country location, 3850 state Route 13, Pulaski.
“What it does is ensures we are more efficient and have more timely services available for children and their families,” Damm said.
She said given the significant amount of therapy sessions, there is a waiting list of 70 children that need services.
“As you can imagine, that is not something we are OK with because these children are the most in dire need of services,” she said.
“We try to utilize our other partners in the community, such as other mental health agencies and lots of private practitioners as well, and they are full too. There is such a mental health need,” she said.
Grant funds mean at least four new positions can be added at the agency.
The CAC coordinates efforts with its multi-disciplinary team, an allegiance with is necessary for the agency to accomplish its goals.
“We couldn’t do this work without our partners, and that includes law enforcement, the Department of Social Services, the district attorney’s office and probation department, medical personnel, the county Health Department and other nonprofits,” Damm said.
The key to continued success is being able to “navigate all the folks who are doing this really important work with us,” she added.
Steady growth at the CAC
When Damm arrived at the CAC in 2010, she was one of four staff members.
After nine-plus years, that number will most likely be about 15 or 16.
Prior to CAC, she worked as the director of child welfare services for The Salvation Army of Syracuse.
Before that, Damm worked as a clinical director for Catholic Charities of Oswego County and as a mental health therapist with the Victims of Violence Program at Liberty Resources in Oneida.
Damm, who earned her master’s degree at Syracuse University, has a license in marriage and family therapy, and also owns her own private practice — CNY Marriage & Therapy Place — in North Syracuse.
Damm initially had the intention to attend medical school, and spent a year following her undergraduate work volunteering at a hospital operating room.
“The part of the operating room that I really liked was going out and comforting families while they were waiting for their people in the recovery room. To me, that’s been my driving force. It’s finding a comforting place when crisis happens,” she said.
Among her strengths is a passion for the job.
“I think I have natural leadership ability and the ability to connect to people,” she said.
Her two mantras are that relationships with others are vital and the only constant is change.
“I have the ability to go with the flow and to grow and make sure that we are keeping up with the times and learning new things,” said Damm, noting awareness of certain illegal practices arise probably a year or two after they have already become a trend in the underworld.
“We have to stay on our game and can’t just let moss grow,” she said.
The field had changed dramatically since Damm jumped in 20 years ago.
With the advent of the internet, child pornography, exploitation and trafficking have come into play.
“The things that children are subjected to are getting more dangerous and it is becoming more for profit,” she said. “People are utilizing children for their own benefit.”
When Damm first arrived on the scene, she noted youngsters from the Pulaski, Sandy Creek and Altmar-Parish-Williamstown areas of the county did not have the resources to seek out services at the primary site in Fulton.
She acquired a startup grant for a satellite site that became reality eight years ago in Pulaski. “It was really just bare bones, and it grew over time,” she said.
Damm said that growth hasn’t been without its challenges.
She said in lean times, questions arose as to whether the Pulaski site was being used to its maximum potential, and it would be placed on the chopping block every so often.
“I knew I had to go to bat for it. I knew that this is important and there was stuff going on with kids who were not able to tell or not able to get the support they needed along with their families,” she said. “It was worth fighting for.”
Justice for all
The CAC’s family advocacy program includes case managers and advocates who specialize in helping families navigate the court system.
Advocates, armed with degrees in public justice, help to break cases down to understandable levels.
CAC’s mental health team then convenes with families to delve through the trauma and stress and attempt to make sense of their now heavily disrupted lives.
The nonprofit agency contracts with state agencies such as the Office of Victim Services and Office of Children and Family Services.
About 90 percent of funding comes through contracts, and then CAC also bills insurance companies for mental health counseling services.
It also received funding through the United Way and relies on cultivating partnerships and community donors.
The CAC’s annual Wing Fest allows participants to test local chicken wings of area eateries while Eagle Beverage provides beverages and volunteers.
Demand is high for CAC services, particularly the specialized trauma-focused, cognitive behavioral therapy that it performs.
It offers a group for parents due to the trend of non-protective parents “who are either looking the other way, just don’t know how or are struggling with their own substance abuse or mental health issues,” Damm said.
“The demand is high for parents to complete our PROTECT parenting group, which aims to increase protections for kids in vulnerable circumstances,” she said.
Damm said the agency is seeing a stark rise in this trend because of the substance abuse issues that are going on with adults, and that’s when kids get neglected.
“When kids get neglected, that’s prime opportunity for pedophiles to be able to come in and have access,” she added.
Damm said it is essential to focus on parenting.
“We need to make sure parents are paying attention and getting their mental health needs met, and then it’s helping kids feel better so they don’t go on to harbor this their entire lives, can get an education and be productive in life,” she said.
Another significant service in great demand is CAC’s Safe Harbor advocacy team.
“We’re building a critical team in Oswego County consisting of other agencies that are becoming aware and are able to educate themselves and ask questions because of the neglect that’s going on with kids,” she said.
Damm said youngsters are running away from home and may end up “couch surfing,” or spending evenings at different houses.
“That means they are vulnerable for exploitation and trafficking, whether it’s in the form of child pornography or it’s survivor sex, such as the need to perform a sexual act in order to be able to spend the night somewhere,” she added.
A factor exacerbating the situation is poverty.
“These kids don’t have anything,” said Damm, noting that staff has conducted training with schoolteachers to build awareness of the association between poverty and abuse.
“We’re saying, ‘OK, if you see kids coming in and they’ve got brand new sneakers, and you know their family is not able to afford brand new sneakers, that just might be someone you want” to give special attention to, she said.
The new behavioral health center being planned for the city of Oswego will help support the CAC’s mission.
“What we’re hoping is that the parents that come in here who are struggling with their own mental health and substance abuse issues will finally have a place where they can get some real treatment,” she said. “They can get in, get seen and don’t have to be on a wait list forever.”
In addition, the CAC will be able to partner with the Oswego Health staff at the new center.
The demand for increased services is inevitable, Damm said, and she said the CAC has to be prepared for more cyber crimes happening on cell phones and computers.
The CAC director said the CAC also carefully monitors the mental health of its staff due to the stressful nature of its work.
“There’s this concept called ‘vicarious trauma,’ which means you will forever see the world in a different way because of your life experience or some sort of traumatic event you watched or witnessed,” she said. “Vicarious trauma happens to every single person who does this work. We will never look and see things the way we used to.”
In order to combat compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress, Damm looks for “compassion satisfaction.
“I look at all the beauty in the world too. You can’t just look at the bad people or have a skeptical mind. You also have to take note of the beautiful things, the families that are very healthy, and the dad that has got his kid on his shoulders and is not going home to abuse. So I’m constantly looking for the beauty in the world too,” she added.
Child Abuse: Oswego Ranks Among the Worst in NYS
Karrie Damm, executive director of The Child Advocacy Center of Oswego County, said Oswego County has traditionally been ranked among the worst counties in the state for child abuse.
“We were one of the worst,” said Damm, noting a high point was reached right around the time that Erin Maxwell died in 2008.
On Oct. 5 of last year, Alan Jones, who was convicted of killing her, was released from state prison 10 years after her strangling death while living in abusive conditions.
A study done by Cornell University following 11-year-old Maxwell’s death indicated that Oswego County — based on the number of abuse incidences per capita — was among the very worst in the entire state.
“I don’t know what that is today, but I think we’ve moved the needle a little bit,” Damm said.