The work done in as little as a couple of hours inside the building on a downtown corner can have effects that last a lifetime for children suffering from abuse.
Inside, the bright primary colors of the former Quiznos at Eighth and Fort were adapted into the decor of the Hays office of the Western Kansas Child Advocacy Center. Stuffed animals, books, toys and comfortable furniture — and maybe even therapy dog Samson — greet visitors in the lobby. Farther back in the building are rooms for storage, forensic interviews, therapy and medical examination, and in the recently finished basement are offices for the staff, all in the child-friendly decor.
It’s all in the interest of giving abused children and their families a comfortable place to talk, to learn they are not alone and they can be OK.
“Our reward, sometimes the only reward, is that kids don’t want to leave here,” Kelly Robbins, co-founder of the WKCAC said.
“In just that short amount of time, just because of the people we have, the process and knowing what works for them, we can make a difference. We may not see the kid again after two hours, but we know when they walk out of there, we’ve had an impact and it’s going to be positive,” she said.
Robbins speaks of what WKCAC does in terms of “we” — the staff working in Hays and the center’s five other sites, but Robbins is at the heart of its history and its operations today.
It’s far from where Robbins started in the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, but it was during her time as a special agent that her life took a turn. She jokes that she is on her “fifth or sixth career.”
Robbins’ first career was in a medical lab, then in the KBI’s crime lab in Great Bend, where she spent 13 years before becoming a special agent. Working out of Scott City, she investigated homicides and other crimes, including cases of abuse against children. Since she was a woman, she was assigned to talk to the children.
“They forgot to ask me if I had kids or knew how to talk to kids,” she said.
“I never had kids. Never wanted kids,” she said.
Realizing she needed specialized training, Robbins found it in 2004 in Finding Words in Indiana, training offered by a child advocacy center in that state that took a multidisciplinary approach.
“You had to take a team there,” she said — including law enforcement, a prosecutor and therapist. Her husband, David Fyler, filled the latter role.
“It changed my life,” Robbins said of the training.
Robbins learned for the first time about child advocacy centers, a child-focused environment where children who are victims of abuse can talk to one interviewer trained to ask questions that help the child avoid reliving the trauma instead of having to tell their story multiple times to a physician and police and lawyers and therapists and the many others involved in the case.
Inspired by what they learned, the team returned to Kansas to set up a CAC in Sublette. There already were several cases needing their attention.
“We basically had all of us working other jobs and coming in and volunteering, working as that team to get it all started,” Robbins said.
The Haskell County attorney donated equipment, and the hospital in Satanta donated space.
“Immediately we were doing about 60 interviews a year,” she said, including cases from northwest Kansas.
One early case in particular affected Robbins. A brother and sister, 13 and 11 years old, farm kids — big belt buckles from horse projects, cowboy hats, “great, great, kids,” as Robbins described them.
“They disclosed they had been molested by their older stepbrother, who was 18, since the little girl was 3,” Robbins said.
Her husband, a therapist, offered counseling to the parents. Robbins interviewed the kids.
“I was a cop at that time. Not that touchy-feely,” she said.
At that point, the only toys they had for teenagers were Rubick’s Cubes.
“I gave them each one of those and sat there and talked with them, and when they were leaving they said ‘This has been so much fun, can we come back tomorrow?’
“They stole my heart,” she said.
“So that’s when I decided I was going to retire.”
And so she started her next-to-last career in 2005, co-founding with her husband the Western Kansas CAC. They expanded to a main office in Scott City, followed by the Colby office.
Within two years, they realized they were missing many cases simply because of geography and added a mobile unit with a converted RV.
“In that first year with the mobile unit, we had a 157-percent increase in cases,” Robbins said.
A review of their statistics several years ago showed 27 percent of cases were coming from Norton, Phillips, Smith, Graham, Osborne, Trego, Ellis and Russell counties, prompting the opening of the Hays office in 2016. Offices in Garden City and Liberal have opened since then.
Today, the WKCAC’s 18 employees cover 32 counties. Six mobile CAC and therapy units based in Colby and Hays have traveled more than 100,000 miles. In 2017, they worked with 530 children.
“That 530 is a number that matches or surpasses even what they’re doing in Kansas City,” Robbins said.
And it’s all done at no cost to the families or the agencies the WKCAC works with.
“We went on the theory ‘Build it and they will come,’ ” Robbins said.
“We would go into a county and provide these services, and then we would go in and ask the county commissioners and city councils for support, but whether they support us or not, the services are always going to be there,” she said.
About 60 percent of the WKCAC’s $1 million-plus annual budget comes from grants. The Dane G. Hansen Foundation of Logan has provided grants, and federal and state grants cover salaries.
Part of that is in limbo, however.
About $130,000 a year has come from the U.S. Department of Justice Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, passed through the governor’s office. The JAG Program provides state, local and tribal entities with funds for personnel, training and equipment for law enforcement, courts, and programs for drug treatment, mental health, victims and witnesses.
Last year, however, the DOJ added requirements for local governments to provide certain documentation about immigration — an attempt by President Donald Trump’s administration to crack down on “sanctuary cities” that limit cooperation with immigration laws.
A lawsuit filed by several of those cities has frozen all the funding, more than $257 million, but many of the agencies were not notified of that until December — two months after they expected the money, Robbins said.
For now, WKCAC has been able to float on reserves without making any cuts, Robbins said, but they have put a hold on hiring a forensic interviewer position.
Fundraising efforts have become more important. A Diamonds and Champagne event in Scott City raised $50,000 last year, and a Colby event raised about the same amount, Robbins said. She hopes Hays can be as successful on that front as well.
While writing grants and other fundraising efforts are part of Robbins’ role as executive director, she’s still involved in helping children as a forensic investigator and therapist. She estimates she’s conducted 1,300 interviews in the 14 years since starting WKCAC.
“She is an amazing therapist. It’s too bad we can’t clone her,” Tracy Kinderknecht, child and family advocate, said.
In 2015, Robbins began her “last career” — being a mother.
She got a call from a girl both she and her husband had interviewed before. The girl, then 15, had been in the foster care system for 10 years and in 11 different placements.
“She called me up and said ‘They’re moving me again,’ ” Robbins said.
“My husband said ‘We need to adopt her.’ So I’m 63 years old, adopting a kid,” she said.
“She came to us in 2015 and changed my life. We hope we changed her life,” she said.
Being a parent gave her a new appreciation for the families WKCAC works with.
“You have no life. You have to give it to your kid. That was a huge adjustment for me,” she said.
“It made me appreciate all the things we tell these parents, all the hoops you need to jump through.
“If you have kids you don’t matter for a long, long time, if ever. I would probably never had said that if I didn’t have my own,” she said.