Julie Hurst has a very specific, to-the-point plan when it comes to launching a children's advocacy center in Walton County.
"Build in six days, rest on the seventh, move the bus on the eighth and start serving children on the ninth," the executive director had typed on the steering committee's Nov. 6 meeting agenda.
Since the Emerald Coast Children's Advocacy Center (ECCAC) opened in October 2000, the accredited center has served Okaloosa and Walton County from its Niceville office. The non-profit agency provides services to prevent child abuse, reduces the trauma of sexual and physical abuse, protects and treats child victims and families while holding offenders accountable and restores the lives and futures of abused, neglected and drug-endangered children and their families. Law enforcement, prosecution, therapists, social workers and a child protection team work under one roof to better serve child victims of abuse. And all services are free of charge.
'A part of the community'
At the Niceville location, the building looks like a house more than an office building. It even has a large porch. Inside are plenty of bright colors, stuffed animals and toys, which lend an inviting feel to visiting children. Hurst even keeps a rocking chair and never misses the chance to cuddle a visiting infant.
"We wanted the building to be a part of the community," Hurst said. "When kids come to us they think it's just a big house."
Seeing a need for an office in Walton County, the center rented space — albeit a small one — in DeFuniak Springs with the intention of creating a permanent location in the future. The current Walton County center is 1,200 square-feet, about 9,000 short of the space needed for the team.
With a rising caseload from DeFuniak, Hurst said the Walton County office will help meet a need in the local area.
“Niceville, is kind of central in Okaloosa County, but when we had cases in Walton County, we were giving out a lot of gas cards,” she said. “We don't want any barriers between us and the children and the travel got to be a barrier."
Setting the groundwork
With the help of some core community leaders such as Sheriff Mike Adkinson, Tom Cooper, director of security at Sandestin, Alexis Tibbitts, superintendent of Okaloosa County, Carlene Anderson, superintendent of Walton County and Arthur Miller of the Institute for Senior Professionals, a steering committee was formed. It has met every month since July.
Right now, the team is in the process of identifying property in the DeFuniak Springs area while also reaching out to Walton County commissioners and leaders to let them know what ECCAC does and how it will benefit the community. Hurst said even after 13 years of serving Okaloosa and Walton County, ECCAC often gets confused with Department of Juvenile Justice.
"Certainly, they're not going to say, 'No, we're not going to help the kids,' " Cooper said
"We need to let them know we're doing them a favor; they're not doing us a favor," Miller added.
It's a favor that the ECCAC wishes they didn't have to carry out. Numbers of abuse cases in Walton County have risen over the years. In 2009, the center served 62 children. Those numbers rose to 243 in 2012. ECCAC does not see every reported case, but the more egregious ones are referred to the center. And then there are those cases that never get reported.
"Statistics say that about two-thirds of cases out there that we're not seeing," Hurst explained.
Hurst is serious about her "build it in six days plan," and is hoping to find the perfect start and at least start building in the next year.
"We're saving kids and putting the bad people away," she said. "Our goal is to be a part of creating a healthy and safe environment for children and families. Some people might believe 'It's not my kid,' but it's all of our kids. Child abuse is a community problem, and having an advocacy center makes a community healthier and stronger."