Center for Alexandria’s Children, local government seal cracks in a once broken approach to child abuse

Center for Alexandria’s Children, local government seal cracks in a once broken approach to child abuse
Sandra Lozada, left, reads to a captive audience at the Center for Alexandria’s Children playgroup Tuesday at the Durant Center. The playgroups reinforce a sense of community that can help prevent child abuse — and open the lines of communication for parents and children, says CAC executive director Giselle Pelaez. (Susan Braun)

On December 27, 2000, in a squalid Alexandria apartment, Asher Levin beat his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter within centimeters of her life. Katelynn Frazier succumbed to her injuries and died, leaving behind a grieving community and an exposed, deeply flawed governmental approach to domestic abuse cases.

The trial revealed Levin and Pennee Frazier, Katelynn’s mother, abused and neglected Katelynn on a weekly basis. Pennee was in the city’s social services database as a deadbeat mom with a history of neglectful behavior. Yet despite her rap sheet and periodic government intervention, Pennee remained Katelynn’s guardian until her death.

Giselle Pelaez, executive director of Center for Alexandria's Children, and Susanne Adams prepare juice and cookies for the playgroup. (Susan Braun)

Many thought the tragedy was avoidable. Things needed to change.

Enter the Center for Alexandria’s Children, housed in an unassuming office on the second floor of a Beauregard Street office complex. Inside is a highly coordinated fort bent on protecting children. Led by CAC executive director Giselle Pelaez, law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers and CAC staff investigate, pursue and deal with the aftermath of child abuse.

Until the Frazier case, handling child abuse incidents had been a disjointed endeavor, each agency working across purposes, Pelaez said. The lack of coordination left cracks open for children to fall though and made the process jarring for victims.

“[Katelynn] was an impetus for the public and private sector to work together,” Pelaez said. “With everybody willing to give up a little control, a system is created that makes a child more willing to give a disclosure [of abuse]. Everyone just gave up a little control.”

CAC’s headquarters helps. It has video-monitored interview rooms that create a comfortable environment where Pelaez and other trained interviewers talk to possible abuse victims. In another room, a social worker, police officer and member of the city prosecutor’s office watch the live feed as the child discloses his or her experience. Everyone is on the same page. Things are fluid. Children are protected.

Pelaez recalls the case of a Mount Vernon elementary school student whose teacher suspected abuse at home. The teacher made a phone call, and within hours the victim had disclosed abuse to CAC officials and been treated by doctors.

Lakisha Morris receives a hug from a girl at one of CAC's playgroups. (Susan Braun)

At the 12-hour mark, her father had been questioned, arrested and locked up by the Alexandria Police Department’s domestic abuse department, headed by Sgt. Bart Bailey.

“We have grown from a splintered response to working cases with consistent and constant collaboration,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Cathryn Evans, who prosecutes abusers. Evans is being honored tonight at CAC’s annual gala with the Champion for Children award. “The criminal investigative and civil child protection processes now, I believe, have more integrity. And I’m not just waxing the poetic.”

“It’s coordinated. We investigate and we act,” Bailey said.

Last year CAC served 191 children, said Child Protective Services program manager Jennifer Cann. Ninety-nine were physically abused; 82 were victims of sexual abuse. The rest fall in the “other” category for witnessing serious violence, for instance.

Those figures might be higher if not for prevention efforts, according to CAC officials. The organization holds playgroups for kids — and parents — at three locales throughout the city as part of a proactive approach to child abuse. Gone are the days of solely teaching “good touch, bad touch,” Pelaez said. CAC shifts the responsibility to parents, and the playgroups reinforce a sense of community — a sense of support — on which parents can depend.

“The CAC truly changed the landscape in Alexandria,” Evans said. “Before, yes, there were bright spots but there were also fences. Now [the CAC team] can see the whole spectacular terrain. Where there was criticism before, now there are more constructive and productive dialogues … And, to my satisfaction or relief, in every case no matter the court outcome, I have confidence that the child — who was once harmed and victimized — will now be safe.”