These decorated handprints were made by children who come to the Penquis Child Advocacy Center in Bangor to talk to an interviewer about sexual abuse. "For a lot of kids, it's really empowering to say, 'I was here. I did this,'" Tamar Mathieu of Penquis said. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

In a quiet room tucked inside the Penquis Children’s Advocacy Center in Bangor, two rows of multicolored handprints mark the work of children who have just done a hard, and brave, thing: talked to a forensic investigator about the sexual abuse that they have endured.

“We call them hands of courage,” Tamar Mathieu, the department director of family enrichment services at Penquis, said. “For a lot of kids, it’s really empowering to say, ‘I was here. I did this.’ And it’s empowering for the other kids who come after them.”

The handprints are a visible sign of the progress that has been made in recent years in the treatment of children who are the victims of sexual abuse. A lot of that progress is due to the statewide network of Children’s Advocacy Centers, one of which played a role in the high-profile arrest of a Waldo County middle school principal in January.

David Holinger, 41, of Belgrade was charged with sexually touching a minor after the child spoke with a forensic interviewer at a center in Winthrop.

The advocacy centers have meant a streamlined process for children who speak up about sexual abuse. Previously, victims were asked to tell their story over and over again — to people such as their teacher, principal, school nurse, police officer, social worker, doctor, detective, child protective investigator, lawyer and counselor.

It was a repetitive and often grueling process that was hard on the child while not always providing the best evidence to prosecutors who aimed to hold abusers accountable.

Now, Maine children who report sexual abuse are asked to tell their story only once, to a trained forensic investigator who is experienced in talking to children about difficult things. The interview happens at a Child Advocacy Center, one of a network of such centers around the state that help to streamline services for child sexual abuse victims and their families.

The origin of the centers dates back to the 1980s, when an Alabama district attorney noticed that social service and criminal justice systems often failed to coordinate efforts in child abuse cases, forcing victims to repeat their stressful, emotionally painful interactions with officials. The movement gathered steam and there are now more than 1,000 centers operating in the U.S. and in countries around the world.

In Maine, there are seven centers that serve 14 counties. An eighth center to serve Washington and Hancock counties is in development.  

In the Penquis center, which opened about five years ago, Wendy Gilbert is often the person who interviews the child. She has a diverse background that includes working with adults with developmental disabilities, working as an investigator for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and volunteering for a rape response hotline.

She makes sure that children know they are in the driver’s seat. She tells them that there are cameras in the room and that the interview will be recorded, and that they can take breaks or stop at any time.

“The biggest, coolest thing about the CAC is that it’s giving the child control back,” Gilbert said.

Meanwhile, in a separate room, a team of people who need to know what the child says is watching the interview from a distance. That collaborative team can include detectives, child protective workers and someone from the district attorney’s office. They listen as Gilbert builds a rapport with the child over neutral subjects such as sports or school, and then works to get information in a non-suggestive, non-leading, open-ended way.

“A kid is not necessarily able to say, ‘it happened 12 times on these dates,’” she said. “But you can start piecing together some of those details.”

Some children don’t want to talk about it, but those who do can feel relief afterwards.

“When kids come here to talk about these things, they worry that they’re not going to feel good after they do the interview,” Gilbert said. “But I’ve heard them tell their caregivers, ‘Wow, somebody finally listened to me. I finally got to tell my story.’ It’s a burden that’s come off.”

While she’s speaking to the child, staff at the center connect their families to mental health and other resources that will help them in the days to come. All of this is a national best practice to help children who have been the victims of sexual abuse, Mathieu said.

“We want to have kids who are healthy and resilient and work through their trauma and grow up to be strong adults,” she said. “We want to have good evidence, so that prosecution can go forward and so that we can hold perpetrators accountable. Child protective needs good information so that they can protect families.”

At the Penquis Child Advocacy Center, Mathieu said, they work toward all of these goals.

“I’m pretty passionate about the model, because it really works,” she said.

In the matter of Holinger, the former Mount View Middle School principal who was arrested at the end of January, the minor child was interviewed by a forensic interviewer at a center in Winthrop on Dec. 9, 2021, after a referral came in from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. In that interview, the child disclosed that they had been subjected to unwanted sexual touching by him on at least three occasions.

Mathieu, who also is the executive director of Bangor-based Rape Response Services, said that advocates at that agency also speak to a lot of adults who were victimized as children but didn’t feel they could tell anyone then. Sometimes they can’t talk about it for decades.

“And so one of the amazing things about the CAC is that opportunity to allow a child to share their story, to not feel like they have to keep it a secret,” she said. “To be able to tell it in a place where they’re believed and supported. The moment that kid makes that handprint, it’s like, ‘I’m good.’ There may be lots more healing to come. But it’s certainly a start in doing that.”