Project Harmony partners with Omaha Police to help children

Collaboration, awareness and generosity, not more abuse, are responsible for Project Harmony’s ability to help more children.

As part of a collaborative and convenience efforts, the child advocacy center provides space for community partners in its headquarters, located on Q and 120th streets.

Among these partners is the Omaha Police Department.

In 2017, the advocacy center saw the number of child witness interviews triple to 293 from 2016 after OPD assigned the domestic violence unit to Project Harmony in June, according to Project Harmony’s 2017 Annual Report.

The increase in witnesses has less to do with the relocation of OPD’s domestic violence unit, and more to do with higher awareness and more education on the issue of children involved in domestic abuse situations, said Angela Roeber, director of communications at Project Harmony.

“The domestic violence unit being housed with Project Harmony is such a great fit because we know, statistically, that hundreds, millions of kids in the U.S. witnessing some type of domestic violence going on in their house,” said Kim Retzlaff, adjunct professor for the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Retzlaff, who teaches special topics in domestic violence and sociology of deviant behavior, also discusses the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) exam, used to indicate trauma.

An indicator of traumatic childhood experiences, the ACE exam refers specifically to instances from birth to age 18. The exam asks questions about emotional and physical abuse as well as the respondent’s environment as a child such as their parents’ marital statuses and mental health standings.

Children who score 10/10 on the ACE exam “have a higher incidence of mortality early on in life,” Retzlaff said.

For child interviewees, Project Harmony has worked to reduce trauma and stress by using forensic interviewers, trained specifically to speak to children, in the information-collecting stage of the reporting process.

At Project Harmony, forensic interviewers perform non-leading, recorded interviews, with a team of professionals watching next door. This prevents children from becoming re-traumatized by telling their stories repeatedly and re-living emotionally-scarring events, Roeber said.

“The nice thing about the forensic interviewing is they’re child-friendly, so they’re not sterile like a police department,” Retzlaff said. “There are games, there are sofas, there are tiered rooms—so kids can climb. Kids can’t sit like you and I are and have a conversation.”

Education is crucial to breaking the cycle of abuse. Project Harmony has led an initiative, Trauma Matters Omaha, to educate, train and inform the community about trauma and the appropriate response to its effects.

“We’re getting better at that, that educational piece, but we know that children who witness domestic violence have problems with school, behavior problems, if it’s not addressed,” Retzlaff said.

In addition to training for the public, Trauma Matters Omaha provides training for OPD.

The institute creates training experiences where actors portray domestic violence situations, and officers are asked to respond to situations with limited information before being exposed to the “whole picture,” Roeber said.

“Our team does a really great job at providing some great experiences to prepare law enforcement for the different interactions that they’ll have with families,” Roeber said.

This April, OPD assigned Capt. Anna Colon to oversee the officers at Project Harmony.

OPD’s priority to assign a police captain to Project Harmony is a testament to the strength of their professional relationship, Roeber said.

“It just shows that the Douglas County police are supporting and backing what we’re doing. They see the need and they believe in the process, and that they value the relationship just as much as we do,” Roeber said. “We couldn’t do this work without the police department and, I think, vice versa.”

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