By ASHLEIGH MANNING
When Karen Baroni moved to Paulding County eight years ago, she had no clue that one day she would find herself involved in the group, Citizens for a Better Paulding County.
She certainly had no idea that, after a local community tragedy, she would be making a difference for a multitude of traumatized children.
Baroni worked for the Miami Police Department for 25 years before retiring. While there, as an intelligence analyst supervisor, she worked with investigators on cases of sexually abused children many times.
When Cpl. Sam Driskell of the Paulding County Sheriff’s Office, whose work in the Crimes Against Children unit was recognized by both the Georgia Sheriff’s Association and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, was murdered last month, she knew she wanted to make a difference in his memory.
Baroni called Sue Wilkins, the head of Citizens for a Better Paulding County, about her idea. The group organized a toy drive that was held from January 12 to January 30. Through Lt. Starry Kilgore, the supervisor of the Crimes Against Children unit in Paulding County, the group received permission from the county to place collection boxes in highly trafficked areas of the local government complex along with the courthouse.
When asked about her experience with the Crimes Against Children unit in Miami, Baroni said, “They interviewed them there in the office, which is different than here. They had a big toy box and they let the children play with the toys to make them more comfortable while they interviewed them. You can imagine, it’s very traumatic for the young children, and the older children.”
Before Paulding County police officers had access to Harbor House they had to interview children themselves. When Harbor House, and now its Paulding County outpost, were formed, it changed the way Paulding County sheriff’s office interviewed child abuse victims. No longer are victims interviewed several times, repeating their stories to many different departments. Now, special trained interviewers with the Paulding Child Advocacy Center will interview the children on camera. With the audio and visual breakthrough, the children now can be interviewed fewer times, which leads to them reliving traumatizing memories less often.
The drive collected 1,058 toys; there were both new and used toys, along with financial donations.
The financial donations were placed wherever the donor specified. The funds were split between the Paulding Child Advocacy Center and for the Cops for Kids program that Paulding County has every Christmas.
The toys were split up as well, with some going to the main Harbor House location in Rome, some to the Paulding Child Advocacy Center, and some to be put in patrol cars. Those still in boxes were placed in a storage unit to be given to families with children that may have unforeseen disasters, like a fire, on an as needed basis.
The police in Paulding County even keep stuffed animals in the trunks of their patrol cars. They use the animals much in the same way that they are used during abuse interviews. The animals help to comfort children that the police come in contact with, no matter what the reason. Any stuffed animal given to a child by the Paulding County police, or Harbor House and its subsidiaries, is that child’s to keep.
According to a Harbor House pamphlet, Child Advocacy Centers are child-focused, facility-based programs in which representatives from many disciplines work together as a multidisciplinary team to conduct interviews and make team collaborative decisions on cases of suspected child abuse. These Centers allow for an age-appropriate and legally defensible forensic interview for all involved agencies.
“My Father, who passed away before I moved here, he collected stuffed animals. I mean, a lot,” Baroni said, thinking about her original idea to start a toy drive. “I thought well, I think my father would like me to donate these. I wanted it more to be instead of just me donating, I wanted it to be a group effort. For not just members of our group but for the community, I thought would like to get involved, to show their support for Corporal Driskell.”
Wilkins agreed with Baroni, saying, “It had such great success and not only was it a tribute to Corporal Driskell, but also the compassion that the community has for these abused children.”
Both the Citizens for a Better Paulding County and the Crimes Against Children unit are optimistic when it comes to any talk of making this drive an annual event.
“I think it would be great for it to still be in honor of Corporal Driskell and maybe be named after him,” Wilkins said.
Kilgore, who seems to share the same sentiment, said, “We would be very open for any kind of assistance the community wants to give for our children in the county.”
According to Harbor House statistics, one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually assaulted by the age of 18. Long-term consequences of sexual abuse include depression, promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, self-mutilation, suicidal tendencies, drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the perpetuation of the sexual abuse cycle as the child victim grows into adulthood.
If you have any reason to suspect that a child is being assaulted in any way, please contact your local law enforcement.