Brightly painted walls, whimsical decor, boxes of toys and piles of plush stuffed animals greet you when you walk through the front door.
Creating a child-friendly environment, after all, was priority No. 1 when Western Kansas Child Advocacy Center opened its Hays office. The non-profit agency, which provides various services for abused children, began seeing clients at 135 W. Eighth a few months ago.
“It’s just a friendly little place,” said Vicki Hubin, a project manager for WKCAC.
The organization covers 32 western Kansas counties, and last year alone served more than 400 children who had endured physical or sexual abuse or witnessed a violent crime.
The addition of a Hays office was needed to address the growing need for services. More than 25 percent of the caseload during the past few years originated in or near Ellis County, said Mandie Lutz, a forensic interviewer and child/family advocate.
“It was incredibly important to get a home base here so we can start covering those numbers,” Lutz said.
Last year alone, WKCAC helped 38 Ellis County children. Those numbers might come as a shock to some people, Hubin said.
“People like to think this doesn’t happen in their communities, and it just happens in every community,” Hubin said. “It just does.”
The Hays location will be staffed at all times, making it the agency’s second permanent office in the state. The other is in Scott City, and additional offices are in Sublette and Colby, though those are not staffed full-time.
WKCAC also has gained national attention for its use of mobile offices. Five converted RV’s travel the agency’s extensive catchment area to provide services to children in need in their hometowns.
The agency offers advocacy services, ensuring a staff member is there with a victim every step of the way. The advocates provide resources and are on call 24/7 to answer questions and just be a friend to the children, Hubin said.
The advocates often develop close relationships with the children, fielding late-night phone calls and questions, mentoring, and in some cases, even fundraising on their own time to help meet the children’s material needs.
In some cases, the advocates might be the only stable support system a child has ever known, said Tracy Kinderknecht, a child and family advocate.
Recently, a child initially rejected the idea of an advocate. As the conversation continued, staff were able to reach the child, she said.
“She started to calm down and realize that, for the first time in her life, that girl had a support system. She’d never had that before,” Kinderknecht said. “It’s providing that, I think. Knowing they’re going to come in here and get a day of rest sometimes and get out of their situation is really rewarding.”
Advocates also help victims with court preparations if necessary and can act as a liaison between the family and the county attorney’s office to help answer questions.
The agency also offers forensic interviews, meaning staff members are specially trained to collect information that can stand up in court if charges are filed. The entire interview is filmed and often can be played during hearings, sometimes sparing the child the potentially intimidating experience of testifying in person.
Therapy services also are offered in a child-friendly format. The Hays office includes a “play therapy” room, and therapy dogs sometimes are used to help put children at ease.
The office also offers a medical clinic, which would allow sexual assault nurse examiners to examine patients and collect evidence in acute cases of abuse.
Staff work closely with multiple agencies, including law enforcement, county attorneys and the Kansas Department for Children and Families throughout the entire process, Hubin said, noting the job isn’t easy.
“We have lots and lots of hard days. Every day really is a hard day,” she said. “But when you think about those children and what they go through every day, and when they’re disclosing to you, it’s like a whole weight has been lifted off their shoulders.
“We have people ask us every day how we do what we do. I think the answer is very simple: We do what we do for those kids.”