BY BARBARA JENKINS

The River Valley Child Advocacy Center illuminates a story of compassion, understanding and guidance. Over the past year, lives have been bettered and saved because of love, understanding and commitment.

Located in Russellville, adjacent to Arkansas Tech University’s campus in the former Crabaugh House, the RVCAC is the 16th of its kind in the state of Arkansas and serves Pope, Yell, and Johnson counties. The center offers a comfortable environment for families to visit when a minor has been subjected to abuse.

Executive director and forensic investigator, Marilyn Sanders, explained the RVCAC’s three main functions.

“Right now we offer three services and will eventually expand to five. The first is advocacy. The second is forensic interviews. The third is trauma-focused therapy. We are working toward implementing forensic medical exams and sexual assault exams and prevention,” said Sanders.

As a nonprofit, RVCAC does not participate in investigations on open cases. Instead, it is the avenue for minors to share their stories and answer questions imperative to the investigation and ultimately give the child the voice they need to gain justice in their case.

The facade of the RVCAC
A mural on the wall at RVCAC displays the hand prints and signatures of those involved with building a brighter path for every child

The River Valley Child Advocacy Center illuminates a story of compassion, understanding and guidance. Over the past year, lives have been bettered and saved because of love, understanding and commitment.

Located in Russellville, adjacent to Arkansas Tech University’s campus in the former Crabaugh House, the RVCAC is the 16th of its kind in the state of Arkansas and serves Pope, Yell, and Johnson counties. The center offers a comfortable environment for families to visit when a minor has been subjected to abuse.

Executive director and forensic investigator, Marilyn Sanders, explained the RVCAC’s three main functions.

“Right now we offer three services and will eventually expand to five. The first is advocacy. The second is forensic interviews. The third is trauma-focused therapy. We are working toward implementing forensic medical exams and sexual assault exams and prevention,” said Sanders.

As a nonprofit, RVCAC does not participate in investigations on open cases. Instead, it is the avenue for minors to share their stories and answer questions imperative to the investigation and ultimately give the child the voice they need to gain justice in their case.

The RVCAC team never knows exactly when they will be needed. They work with DHS and local law enforcement to schedule appointments. Once a minor arrives, they are generally accompanied by family members. Most of the time, family and minors are nervous upon arrival. However, with the help of the RVCAC staff, minors and their families are greeted with a calm, understanding and helpful atmosphere.

Each interview with a minor is video recorded so the story is only told once during the entire investigation. In other avenues, a minor might be required to tell their story multiple times to multiple people. With the help of RVCAC, redundancy is minimized.

Since RVCAC opened in March 2018, Sanders and her team have helped more than 150 minors and their families begin the healing process. Although RVCAC mainly assists with sexual abuse cases, they also console victims of other types of abuse. RVCAC’s success with helping victims of abuse is not only due to the phenomenal people who have dedicated their careers to service, but also to ATU’s contribution to the nonprofit.

Amy Gray is a recent graduate of ATU in Russellville with a Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Science. Gray, who started her professional journey selling insurance never felt passionate about her career, until she volunteered to work with kids who had aged out of the foster care system teaching them basic office skills.

“Working with those kids developed a passion in me, inspiring me to get my degree,” said Gray. After graduation, Gray was unsure of where her journey would lead when she stumbled upon the RVCAC on Facebook. She immediately knew she had found her calling.

Since becoming an advocate for RVCAC, Gray has worked with families from all walks of life developing lasting relationships with her clients. She is actively involved with counseling sessions for minors and checks on families until their cases are closed. Gray also provides guidance to interns who choose RVCAC as part of their final educational experiences before graduation.

Nikki Sanders graduated from ATU-Ozark in 2018 with an Associate of Applied Science in Human Services. In her final semester, she worked with RVCAC under staff guidance, working with clients as an advocate.

“There are so many different dynamics that I was faced with during my time at RVCAC, that I believe have shaped my education so far and will continue to influence my education in the future,” said Nikki Sanders. “The atmosphere is friendly, the people I work[ed] for were friendly and everyone was welcomed.”

Marilyn Sanders is optimistic about the future of the RVCAC. In less than a year, the RVCAC has helped over 150 children. Although some days can be daunting, Sanders and her staff remind themselves of the lives they are helping. As a constant reminder, the walls of the center are decorated with colorful hand paintings of all of the minors who have walked through their doors.

“I cannot openly tell the public details of the cases we see,” shared Sanders. “But when people want to know the impact of the RVCAC, I show them the hands on the wall. They can see the good work we do when they see these hands big and small.”

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