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CEO of Family & Children’s Place Louisville overcoming challenges to help kids overcome abuse
April 19, 2022
As a young social worker in Louisville, Pamela Darnall says she was haunted by cases of children who reported sexual abuse but recanted after being forced to repeatedly describe intimate and humiliating details to police, social workers, lawyers and others.
“I had kids tell me, ‘You made me tell eight people,'” Darnall recalled.
Further, some children were accused of lying by family members who refused to believe claims against the perpetrator, often a relative or someone close to the household.
“‘Nobody believes me. I’m taking it all back because everybody hates me,”’ Darnall recalls children telling her.
Now as CEO of Family & Children’s Place in Louisville, Darnall works to try to prevent that from happening to any child through her agency’s role as one of 15 Children’s Advocacy Centers in Kentucky.
The centers were established more than 20 years ago as a central site where children can describe their abuse to a single professional therapist and receive a medical exam if warranted. Trained forensic specialists conduct extensive, neutral interviews with children that help establish whether abuse occurred.
The centers also provide therapists to help families understand abuse and support and counsel children whose claims are substantiated.
They are operated by non-profit organizations and are funded with government money along with private fundraising by the centers to defray the many expenses public money doesn’t cover.
For Darnall, 61, her work as CEO of Family & Children’s Place is the culmination of a career in children’s services meant to improve the system for evaluating claims of abuse and better serve children who experience it.
Pamela Darnell, CEO of Family & Children’s Place, oversees the center for children in the region who have experienced abuse.
“When kids have awful, horrific, traumatic experiences, they don’t deserve that,” she said. “None of that should happen.”
But with the right help, “It doesn’t define who they are or what they can do,” Darnall said.
Darnall has been in social services since 1985, when she took a job as a child protection worker with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Gardner-Webb University in her home state of North Carolina.
She jokes that the private Christian college was little known in Kentucky until 2007 when its men’s basketball team stunned the University of Kentucky with an upset victory at Rupp Arena.
Darnall has a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Spalding University in Louisville.
Family & Children’s Place, the largest of the state’s 15 regional child advocacy centers, is located near downtown Louisville on a spacious campus off Zane Street, occupying most of the block.
Its offices include space for state child protection workers and the Louisville Metro Police Department Crimes Against Children Unit, part of a plan to include all such services at a single location when the center designed its new headquarters that opened in 2013.
The center itself dates to 2008, when two smaller children’s agencies merged into what is now Family & Children’s Place.
Darnall, who was running a children’s program called Family Place, and Dan Fox, then CEO of Family and Children First, developed the plan to merge. Darnall became president and CEO in 2014 after Fox retired.
The new agency served as the Children’s Advocacy Center, as well as expanding into other areas over the years.
Today, it offers a variety of children’s services in addition to being the regional center for child sexual abuse evaluation and treatment.
It helps operate Head Start in Jefferson County, a federal pre-school enrichment program, in partnership with Coordinated Community Child Care.
It offers an array of treatment services for children who have experienced abuse or neglect.
In Jefferson County, the center provides HANDS (Health Access Nurturing Development Services), a federally funded program for pregnant women and new parents in which home visits from a trained worker provide information, education and other aid to help the family get off to a good start. Darnall said the program has been shown to significantly improve outcomes for kids and reduce child abuse.
And it offers a variety of programs and classes in-school and after-school for children in the area, including one in which families get together to plan and cook healthy meals.
The center serves families in Jefferson, Bullitt, Oldham, Trimble, Henry, Shelby and Spencer counties and in Southern Indiana.
Darnall says her greatest joy is helping children overcome abuse and families start to heal.
But she said her biggest challenge has been and remains raising enough money to sustain the programs at Family & Children’s Place.
Recently, Darnall appeared before a legislative committee to testify on behalf of Senate BIll 8, which would update and expand Kentucky’s child abuse and neglect laws and also would increase funding for forensic medical exams at the state’s 15 centers.
While the exams — at no charge to the family — cost about $2,100 each, the state pays only $538 through Medicaid, a fee that hasn’t increased in 20 years, Darnall said.
That’s just one example of a host of programs and services that have had no increase from various funding sources even as costs keep rising, Darnall said. Meanwhile, other outside sources of money have been cut or eliminated, including a loss of about of about $500,000 over the past three years from Metro United Way after it changed its formula for funding agencies in 2019.
Darnall said she believes state aid must increase if lawmakers, who currently are deciding how to spend a budget surplus, want the centers to effectively continue their work in child sexual abuse and other areas.
“I’ve been in Frankfort many times over the years,” Darnall said. “I have heard time and time again that we don’t have enough money for everything. We do now.”
COVID-19 took an especially brutal toll on non-profits, she said, forcing many to shut down temporarily and suspend vital fundraising activities.
In 2020, Family & Children’s Place was forced to cancel its spring breakfast, an annual event that brings in more than $120,000, because of COVID-19.
Last year, the center held a virtual event. This year, the center plans to resume its annual “Champions for Children” breakfast on April 13 with reduced in-person attendance.
Darnall said it will take Family & Children’s Place, and many other non-profit agencies, several years to dig out of the financial hole that COVID-19 has worsened.
“Everybody’s been piecing it together for years,” she said. “But this COVID challenge has burst the dam.”
Reach Deborah Yetter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 502-582-4228. Find her on Twitter at @d_yetter. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/subscribe.