TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center is designed to be a warm and welcoming place.
It’s full of toys. A large, colorful chalkboard adorns one wall, and Jeeves the havanese dog greets guests with a wagging tail.
The atmosphere is designed to put some of the Grand Traverse region’s most vulnerable residents at ease: youths who are the victims of sexual abuse.
About 200 children and developmentally disabled adults visit the center’s East Front Street office each year. Brooke Nettz, the center’s executive director, said about half of them disclose they were sexually abused, and about a quarter of those cases lead to prosecutions.
A trial and conviction is what the center’s staff hope for in every case, but the center’s real value lies in helping victims and their families cope with abuse, regardless of what happens in court.
“We heal the family and heal the child so that, as they grow up into being an adult, they can have healthy relationships and a healthy life,” Nettz said.
The nonprofit organization, one of 24 accredited children’s advocacy centers in Michigan, primarily serves Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties, and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
It’s $350,000 annual budget -- two-thirds of which comes from local groups like Rotary Charities of Traverse City and United Way of Northwest Michigan -- funds free counseling services for victims and their families, as well as forensic interviews with suspected victims of abuse.
But much of the center’s work involves stopping sexual abuse before it starts. Amelia Siders, the center’s clinical coordinator, said that involves educating community members about the prevalence of sexual abuse and factors that put children at risk.
One in 10 children in the United States will be sexually abused before they reach adulthood, Nettz said, and roughly 90 percent of victims are abused by someone they know.
“It’s not some guy in a trench coat at a sketchy playground,” Siders said.
Siders said parents and youth organizations can greatly reduce the risk of child sex abuse by limiting one-on-one, isolated time between children and an adult as much as possible. Adults also need to be vigilant of signs that suggest abuse is taking place, including excessive bed-wetting and nightmares in young children, and eating disorders or drug abuse in older youths.
“These could be signs of other things, too, but we try to tell people that these are all signs that something is going on,” Siders said. “That’s when you need to start asking some questions.”