First Lady Susan Hutchinson ‘Shines Hope’ over a Lifetime of Service to Children

Woman of Inspiration

Photo by Jordan Knight

 

“The skills a survivor learns to survive are not the skills they need for life.” These were words a friend said to First Lady Susan Hutchinson regarding navigating childhood abuse. The words resonated with Hutchinson, who in turn, has had an immeasurable influence on expanding the footprint of the life-changing organization, Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas. 

 

The seed for her involvement was planted four years before she became First Lady of Arkansas, alongside her husband, Gov. Asa Hutchinson. At that time, she had learned about the CAC in Benton, on whose board she had begun serving as secretary. She realized, as she took notes of the terrific need, that the organization’s 14 locations were just not enough. “Oh, this is bad; and we’re nationwide?” she thought. “The U.S. Dept. of Justice recognizes us.” In having observed the humble communities on various campaign trails with her husband in the past, she thought there was no way the areas that needed it most could afford the philanthropic giving necessary to support more centers, to service more needs.

 

 But, her husband was running for governor, and she learned that a governorship allows multiple platforms and access for the spouse. 

 

“If he can get this, I’ll do this, and it will be worth giving up my privacy,” she thought. 

 

“I thought, it’ll be worth it. If God allows Asa to be governor, I’ll take this. I’ll take it to the rest of the state and tell everybody that there is help. I’ll raise money.”

 

But Hutchinson didn’t yet know how to set her plans in motion, or anybody in Little Rock, really. So she called up the executive director of CAC and made a connection with Shayla Copas, a local interior designer who’s an expert at putting big bashes together. Copas had already thought of the title Woman of Inspiration and was thinking of attributing it to domestic violence. But then, she saw what the First Lady was doing. When Copas later went public about the harm she herself had survived by a family member, it clinched “Woman of Inspiration” to CAC. Then, Tom Kennedy, a prosecutor who’d gotten a conviction on a child abuse case, got Entergy to pledge $25,000 to the cause, which established instant credibility for the organizations. 

 

Woman of Inspiration

Hutchinson’s tireless, perpetual efforts to wither the incidence and effects of child abuse across Arkansas have doubled the number both of CAC locations in the state in seven years and the children served by them in only five years. She’s also partnered with first ladies in 14 other states in her latest campaign, “Shine Hope,” to end child abuse by strengthening and coordinating CACs nationally. 

 

Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas (CACar) are the State Chapter supporting 30 Child Advocacy Centers throughout the state, according to CAC Development Specialist Dawn Meyer.  CACs provide a safe place for child victims of physical and sexual abuse and neglect, to find hope and healing. All services are free to the child and their non-offending family members. Services available at a CAC include advocacy, forensic interview, medical exam by a trained sexual abuse nurse examiner, mental health therapy and prevention education. CACs are teaching the skills survivors of abuse need to live the lives they were intended to.  

 

“This year, we are honoring First Lady Susan Hutchinson with this new award. She has spent her life working to improve the lives of children,” notes CAC Development Specialist Dawn Meyer. From her initial involvement with the CAC of Benton County, [Susan] has made this cause her passion. Her knowledge of the workings of government and legislation has helped Arkansas align with a national standard for child abuse response.”

 

To appreciate the seriousness of the problem of child abuse, the essential role CACs play in children’s healing and the her mission to spread their benefits wherever possible, Hutchinson shared intimately her connection to the cause. 

 

“I’m trying to use the time I’ve got [before the inauguration day of the new governor of Arkansas],” she explains. “I know what I have now: People are paying attention and taking my calls. I talk with them, learn how things work and ask questions. If I don’t like the answer, I ask myself, ‘What was the thinking? Did they miss something?’ But, I don’t know what will happen when I return to being a private citizen.”

 

Gov Hutchinson and First Lady Susan

“The First Lady, I don’t think, understands the gravity of how much she has changed in this short 7 1/2 years,” observes Misty Hunt, First Lady Hutchinson’s Chief of Staff. “I don’t think she understands even how – just speaking about this topic to an audience, people can feel nervous – she has a way of speaking that, over the course of the talk, attitudes change. And people are okay with talking about it by the end. 

 

“But the change in the policy, change in the policy research and learning how it works and how it could be better – this is a constant, a 24-7 for her. When she was given this amazing role of First Lady, she went to the Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas, to raise them up and make that her mission for eight years.” Hutchinson’s pivotal impact on CAC-ar conveys why she is being recognized at the end of this month with the organization’s first-ever “Lifetime Achievement Woman of Inspiration” award.   

 

When asked whether it is hard to be tenacious when encountering cultural roadblocks in galvanizing support for the CACs, Hutchinson explains that “Culturally speaking, child abuse is a very difficult subject. I certainly don’t want to have to talk about it in the sense I know it’s a very unsettling truth. It’s very painful.” People also have a difficult time hearing it.

 

“For centuries, we blamed the rape victim, [implying] that there was something wrong with her or him – that they were lewd or promiscuous, etc. – and put it back on the victim.

 

“Even if the child approaches law enforcement with all the good laws passed through the years, the response is still too often: ‘Why has this been going on? Why haven’t you spoken up?’” Such a line of questioning shifts the responsibility back onto the victim, suggesting she had control, which she did not, Hutchinson explains.  

 

“We should have all learned in school about the adrenal glands being activated when you’re threatened, and your fight or flight response… But to ‘freeze’ is something they never taught us. If you tell that to the general public, they don’t understand freezing. In small ways, it has happened to me, and I froze, just trying to get through the moment…But you put that experience on time and time again, and worse and worse, and on a kid or adult… and they respond that way, too. We need to understand that.” 

 

Hutchinson explains that law enforcement, prosecutors, jurors and investigators have to come to understand when working in these personal violations, how people respond. 

 

“Because the rest of us haven’t experienced it, we have a hard time understanding why [victims] don’t do more.  Our prosecutors aren’t trained in how to interview a child or why a child would recant.” 

 

Hutchinson underscores the complex mindset of a victim. “There’s a different kind of logic that doesn’t make sense to jurors or other folks who have never heard that kind of testimony. That’s where education needs to come in, for people to really take it in.” 

 

The Children’s Advocacy Center resulted from the imagination of a prosecutor, Bud Kramer, in Huntsville, Alabama. As Hutchinson relates the concept, Kramer had worked diligently on his cases of violations against children and teens but faced many setbacks. In one case, thrilled with a victory, justice for the family and incarceration of the perpetrator, Kramer expected his client’s parents to be equally “jubilant,” recounts Hutchinson. But, they were not. The system had put their child through a vise by the persistent questioning by different strangers in the system, asking and insinuating, making this child relive it, having to see this medical person and that case worker.  

 

Hutchinson explains that in the absence of a CAC, a child abuse victim who comes forward will likely interact with 14 different people charged with protecting and seeing justice for the child. 

 

“When is that child supposed to heal?” she questions. “Why would anybody want to talk about this nastiest of things? Why would any adult want to? You don’t go around talking about those things to have that information broadcast or on a court record. This is very private. And it was hurtful. We have to find a way to stop that hurt being repeated by the various wolves that walk among us.” 

 

Kramer considered deeply what this 12-year-old client of his had endured while interacting with the government over her abuse. Hutchinson relates, “Traumatized, traumatized, traumatized – when they’ve already gone through the most horrific trauma. And who knows how many times with that same person? We’ve got to handle this better. 

 

“The responsibility is still with the state, judges and social workers,” she explains, “but how can we help without traumatizing the victim more? What if somebody else, who knew how to talk with a child, would do it in such a way and record it to be acceptable in court for testimony, for sentencing – however the court wanted to use it? We would have it on video, so anybody can see and discern for themselves what the victim is saying. Leave cross-examinations for the courtroom.” While she points out there’s rarely a witness to the crime, these interview-conversations still provide critical testimony of the victim’s experience. 

 

CACs adhere to a careful protocol for interviewing. According to Hutchinson, they ask questions in an unobtrusive way to ascertain what happened, the timing, what happened afterward, how this person approached and what access the accused has or had to other children. 

 

Photo by Jordan Knight

“It gives credibility to what’s been stated,” she explains. “The interviewer poses questions to build the scene: ‘Do you remember who else was in the house? Was it cold that day?’ Adults can piece together the timeline.” The interview is vitally important. 

 

“Law enforcement, prosecutors and investigators are watching in real time our CAC interviewer with the victim in a comfortable room, through a one-way mirror or closed-circuit television. They can (audio) questions into the ear[piece] of the interviewer. The camera is always on. Sometimes the child needs a break. They try not to be interactive with the child, so that information does not influence his or her statement.” Hutchinson also notes that the interview is conducted with the voluntary consent of the child to avoid further harming the victim.

 

Still, the ongoing threats made by the perpetrator to the child also pose a major obstacle to him or her seeking escape from abuse or other help. 

 

“All the things the victim’s been told entrap them – The person hurting them might say, ‘If you tell anyone, they won’t believe you and will put you in jail for lying.’ Or, ‘If you tell anyone, I’ll hurt your mother.’ ‘You tell anyone, and I’ll kick you out and you won’t have any place to live.’ These wolves can also be blood-related to the victim.” Upwards of 86% of perpetrators are relatives or significantly known to the victims, and not as one might like to believe – strangers. 

 

The First Lady recounts story after story of how these “wolves among us” operate in threats and secrecy that profit off of children’s vulnerability and trust. These predators rely on emotional blackmail. One young girl, whose friend had been over to visit and wished to go to the park, asked her father if he could take them. “He said ‘Yes, but you know what you have to do for me,’ Hutchinson shares. “So she went back to her friend and said, ‘Yeah, he’ll take us, but I gotta go do such-and-such.’” The friend later bravely reported what the daughter had been forced to do, allowing the CAC to intervene.

 

“It’s not enough to just survive,” she adds. “Healing of your mind, soul and emotions – that primarily comes through counseling that is targeted, trauma-focused, cognitive, behavioral therapy. We use play therapy [referring trauma therapy age appropriate for children]. I encourage people to visit with God about it, if you can trust another person, etc. But you need somebody to walk you through it. This is a crime of one human onto another human in the most personal way.” Trust has to be rebuilt from one human to another, too. That’s what the CAC does. 

 

“In a perfect world, the public and legal and welfare professionals just need to know to refer to the CACs. My call would be out there for adults also to have some sort of help,” Hutchinson says. “Save the cross-examining for later. [We need] more training for prosecutors, deputy prosecutors. Different private entities can train professionals on how to talk to victims. The Department of Justice has a program for attorneys.” The federal justice system has no statute of limitations on child abuse, so some items are better tried there, though laws in Arkansas have been recently amended to extend the statute of limitation, following a high profile case in 2015 involving the “cause celebre” Smith Brothers. These two adult brothers were professionals before they admitted their abuse to one another. One is a lawyer, and their case and example has helped engender support for male victims no longer hiding in silence about what was done to them against their will as children.

 

Still, regarding victims becoming predators themselves, as is so often how perpetrators begin, Hutchinson notes, “That’s the impetus to getting to the children as quickly as we can, to get them treatment before the abuse is ingrained in them. All kinds of damage is done to the child, the psyche – bedwetting, nervousness, not doing well in school, anger, fights, other behavioral anomalies – all kinds of warning sights for good parents to pay attention to. Very often children act out on other children what’s been done to them. At some point that mirroring becomes part of them; we want to get to them before that. 

 

The Children’s Hospital offers counseling for those young people. This danger is just one of the many scenarios that manifest in victims. If children are not able to tell early on, the average age of telling is 55. Some are going to the grave with this information.”

 

Many of the services CACs provide, Meyer notes, are deeply needed.

 

“There are over 42 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse,” she says. “CACs were created to help children heal from trauma caused by physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. CACs specifically employ a multidisciplinary approach. They work with all agencies and individuals trying to help the children.”

 

“In Arkansas, CACs partner with Arkansas State Police – Crimes Against Children Division; DHS – Department of Children and Family Services Division; prosecutors; local law enforcement; and medical and mental health professionals to advocate for the benefit of the child. Every year, the Arkansas Child Abuse hotline investigates over 35,000 child abuse claims. The problem crosses all socioeconomic, gender and racial boundaries: It is everyone’s problem.” 

 

The main purpose of advocates at CACs is to help connect the child and family with resources in order to stabilize the child’s environment. Professionals will work with the family to navigate the child protection system, assist with court preparation, assist with school and job issues and offer assistance to benefit the child. They further counsel with non-offending caregivers to support the individual needs in each situation.

 

These centers are interrupting generations of abuse in ways that may have been previously impossible. Yet, as Meyer explains, prevention is extremely important. To that end, CACs also offer free community education for children, parents, educators and community leaders. 

 

“It is important to know the signs of abuse, since 60% of children never tell anyone about their abuse,” Meyer says. 

 

woman of inspiration

CAC-ar’s Woman of Inspiration event to honor First Lady Susan Hutchinson will be held on Oct. 28, at the Statehouse Convention Center. Hutchinson’s Shine Hope campaign has been promoted on social media with the tagline #ShineHope. With this nationwide campaign, first ladies from 14 states have pledged “to recognize that child abuse and neglect is a serious problem affecting every segment of our communities.”  

 

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