TIFTON -- Georgia's First Lady Mary Perdue will be the guest speaker at the Patticake House's ribbon cutting at 11 a.m. Tuesday. The Children's Advocacy Center serves many functions related to the interests of children from Tift, Irwin, Turner and Worth counties who report sexual or physical abuse.

Perdue has begun the "Our Children Campaign" since she became First Lady. The goal of the campaign is to "spur a new era of collaboration among Georgia's many communities -- individuals, corporations, organizations, foundations and faith-based communities -- and to increase the level of volunteerism on behalf of Georgia's children around the state."

"Mrs. Perdue's interest in our CAC underscores the importance of doing everything we can to assure that children who are the victims of crime or neglect are afforded every opportunity to overcome the obstacles in their lives," said Cindy Evers. Evers is chairman of the board for Ruth's Cottage, Tifton's domestic violence shelter. The Patticake House is under the board's umbrella.

Gov. Sonny and Mary Perdue have four children of their own and have provided a foster home for many babies and children. The Our Children Campaign focuses on helping Georgia's children in state custody.

Evers said that the CAC provides a multidisciplinary team of professionals who review a child's case and "close the loopholes that have for so long allowed children to slip through unserved.

"The perpetrator no longer abuses a child, then walks away because there is not enough evidence to prosecute," Evers said.

One of the members of the CAC's disciplinary team is Ronnie Wheeler from the district attorney's office. Wheeler sits in on interviews and cases and helps Melissa Wood, the center's forensic interviewer, ask the right questions in order to gather the evidence needed.

"Sexual abuse is skyrocketing and we have got to send a message to these criminals that if you abuse a child, physically or sexually, you will be prosecuted," Evers said.

According to information on Mary Perdue's Web site at www.gov.state.ga.us, every 30 minutes a child is the victim of abuse in Georgia. As of July 2003, 14,481 children were in state custody. Of these, 7,925 were in family foster care, 1,312 were in group homes and 657 were in special settings because of serious emotional problems. There were 2,366 children in legal custody of the Department of Human Resources with a permanency plan of adoption.

Children from Tift, Irwin, Turner and Worth counties who report possible child sexual or physical abuse can now be interviewed at the center. Fifteen interviews have been conducted in the center since it opened in June. Unfortunately, business will probably pick up as more agencies in the circuit learn about the CAC and the services it offers. There has been an average of 35 reports of child abuse each month in the circuit this year.

Before the CAC, a child who disclosed abuse was interviewed between two and seven times -- forced to tell and re-tell the events to school counselors, law enforcement agents, district attorneys and then again, possibly, during a trial, a practice that director Ina Woodruff describes as "traumatizing."

Future plans for services to be offered at the CAC include follow-ups with mental health agencies, on-site therapy and forensic medical exams.

The Children's Advocacy Center was named the Patticake House by the Tifton Judicial Circuit Shelter, Inc., Board of Directors in honor of Patti Stafford for her "many hours of volunteer work in its establishment." Stafford recently received the Eagle Award as volunteer of the year from Georgia's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Funding for the CAC has come from the district attorney's office, Tift Regional Medical Center, The Stafford Foundation, Irwin EMC, Exchange Club of Tifton, United Methodist Women of Tifton's First United Methodist Church, the Child Abuse Council and many private citizens. Volunteers have contributed their talents to designing the plans for the building, landscaping, camera equipment, heating and air conditioning work, painting and donations.

Woodruff said that the CAC doesn't have much storage but always has the need for office supplies, including VHS tapes and recordable DVDs. The center also has the need for window treatments in four of its rooms, a digital camera for making photographs to accompany each child's folder, three small boxwoods to replace some that have died in the front yard and more child-friendly art for the walls. Gift certificates for office supplies would be appreciated.

The CAC is a 501(c)3 organization and any donation is tax deductible. Donations can be mailed to the Patticake House, P.O. Box 1169, Tifton, GA 31793. Donors will be mailed a receipt for tax purposes.

To contact city editor Angie Thompson, call 382-4321.

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