Jackson County’s A.W.A.K.E provides security for abused children

Almost 23 years ago, representatives from the Jackson County community decided it was time for there to be a central location for abused children – a place where they could share their experience and receive coordinated services with all agencies involved.

In September 1993, Adults Working and Advocating for Kids’ Empowerment (A.W.A.K.E), a private nonprofit organization, was founded in Sylva, NC, and it is a place of security and rescue for many children.

A.W.A.K.E Executive Director, Renee Coward, via AwakeCACenter.org

A.W.A.K.E Executive Director, Renee Coward, via AwakeCACenter.org

According to A.W.A.K.E Executive Director, Renee Coward, the child advocacy center’s goal is to increase child abuse awareness and provide a central space where a multi-disciplinary team (MDT) involved in an abuse case can come together with the child’s and family’s best interest at the center of the conversation.

“We provide a central location where these (MDT) specialists can come together to review cases, ask questions and seek next steps in helping children who suffer abuse,” said Coward.

Department of Social Services investigators, various law enforcement, mental health providers and medical specialists along with A.W.A.K.E staff all work together to resolve child abuse cases and help children begin the healing process.

Coward is a Western Carolina University graduate and retired science teacher. She decided she wanted to keep doing meaningful work, so she applied for a position at A.W.A.K.E after leaving the field of education. After a year, the director retired and Coward was hired for the position.

“I feel so fortunate to be working with people who really are making the world a better place. Isn’t that what we all want to do? That’s what makes it worth waking up in the morning,” Coward said.

Paige Gilliland, Case Manager/Victim Services Coordinator, agreed.

“I believe that no matter what a child goes through, if they just have one person or place to stand up for them, they will have a chance. We can be that person for that child,” Gilliland said.

According to statistics from Safe Horizon, a victim assistance organization, one in 10 children suffer from maltreatment, one in 16 suffer from sexual abuse and one in 10 witness family violence.

“Jackson County sometimes doesn’t want to believe that child abuse is happening in our communities. A lot of us think, ‘What if I report it and it isn’t true?’ You have to think like this, ‘What if I don’t report it and it is true?’ The risk is far greater when we believe that it isn’t happening,” said Coward.

As always, Coward and Gilliland want to remind the Jackson County community that it is every adult’s legal responsibility to report child abuse.

While the organization has been centered in an office in downtown Sylva since its inception, their work space has expanded tremendously. A.W.A.K.E’s front door leads into a kid-friendly play area, equipped with stuffed animals, comfy chairs and toys. Beyond that is a counseling room, where an encouraging sandbox inspires fun and healing.

Down the hall is a forensic interview room, furnished with sofas for older children and a small table for youngsters. This is where Gilliland and the county’s other forensic interviewers do a lot of their work. Gilliland received her degree in criminal justice from WCU in 2011. Gilliland’s father was a child abuse victim, and she felt like she was called to work with abused children, so she worked as a victim advocate and forensic interviewer for Kids Advocacy Resource Effort (KARE) in Haywood County, and did that for three and a half years before coming to A.W.A.K.E.

Enjoying the comforts of A.W.A.K.E's office. Via @awakecac Instagram

Enjoying the comforts of A.W.A.K.E’s office. Via @awakecac on Instagram

According to Gilliland, forensic interviews are set up as a conversation between the interviewer and a possible child abuse victim. They are conducted to elicit information from the child on the alleged abuse event(s). A.W.A.K.E’s forensic interview room is equipped with cameras, so law enforcement and DSS investigators can watch and listen from a separate room while the interview takes place.

“The kids who disclose to us are very brave. So many kids are afraid to talk about it, and one main reason they do finally come forward is so the perpetrator won’t do it to someone else,” said Gilliland.

Next door is a medical examination room, where A.W.A.K.E’s nurse practitioner provides specialized medical exams for the children.

A.W.A.K.E’s interns, many are WCU students, work in another room on outreach and activities, like the Pinwheels for Prevention movement.

Senior social work major, Lauren Orr, is interning this semester.

“It’s just a wonderful opportunity to make a difference,” she said.

A.W.A.K.E’s most-used space is a meeting room in the center of the office. Equipped with a long wooden table, kitchen appliances and computer monitors hooked up to the forensic interview room, this is the area where the MDT come together.

According to Coward, every other week representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, Child Medical Evaluation, Mental Health, DSS, Department of Juvenile Justice, Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and Sylva Police Department hold a meeting to discuss new and ongoing Jackson County cases. Instead of setting up multiple meeting times, the whole group comes together at A.W.A.K.E, to increase efficiency when they discuss the 25-30 cases at each meeting.

When Coward and Gilliland aren’t working on cases, they are busy with outreach and child abuse prevention events. A.W.A.K.E is partnered with all of the Jackson County schools, where they put on puppet shows for students in kindergarten through the second grade. The age-appropriate shows are meant to demonstrate to students the signs of physical or sexual abuse and teach children skills to stay safe.

“We want to stop child abuse before it happens,” said Coward.

One thing is for sure, no one day looks the same for employees of A.W.A.K.E. Everyday tasks include fundraising, community outreach, phone calls to families and child abuse seminars. In addition, the office offers weekly counseling for clients who request this service.

Pinwheels for Prevention, via awakecacenter.org

Pinwheels for Prevention, via awakecacenter.org

“Every single day is different,” said Gilliland. “But no matter what we’re working on, we will drop everything when we get the phone call that says a child is on the way. We drop everything to serve a child.”

A.W.A.K.E is especially busy this month. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Jackson County is recognizing this as a county wide designation. Several Jackson County businesses have partnered with A.W.A.K.E to display pinwheels around town for Pinwheels for Prevention, the national symbol for the great childhood all children deserve, according to Prevent Child Abuse America.

Harrah’s Casino and Lowes have also partnered with A.W.A.K.E to put a “new face” on the center. On April 21 from 3-6 p.m., A.W.A.K.E will be hosting an open house in their office at 563 West Main Street in Sylva.


You can visit A.W.A.K.E’s Facebook page to keep up with their Child Abuse Prevention Month activities and future events.