Kelli Wacker

KELLI WACKER is the director of the Northeast Nebraska Child Advocacy Center in Norfolk. Wacker and others at the center work to provide services to children who are victims of abuse or sexual abuse.

If Kelli Wacker could do one thing, she’d put herself out of a job, she said. 

But that’s not likely to happen.

Wacker is the director of the Northeast Nebraska Child Advocacy Center and, over the past year, has seen a surge in cases.

The Northeast Nebraska Child Advocacy Center is a nonprofit agency and department of Faith Regional Health Services that helps child abuse and child sexual abuse victims, Wacker said. It serves 24 counties and is one of seven centers in Nebraska.

The purpose of the child advocacy centers is to make the situation as easy for the victims as possible, Wacker said.

“The philosophy or idea behind CACs is that kids and families just come to one place, and then all of the professionals come to them,” she said.

The center can provide forensic interviews, medical exams, sexual assault kits, family advocacy, mental health referrals and drug testing for kids who have been exposed to illegal substances, Wacker said.

The center also works to educate schools and the community about child abuse, she said.

Wacker said child abuse and sexual assault are more prevalent than many people realize.

“We see at least 300 child victims every year, just in this area,” Wacker said. “The reality is a lot of people probably don’t realize that their kids are sitting in a desk in their classroom next to kids who are walking through our doors.”

Two-thirds of those 300 cases are related to sexual assault, Wacker said.

When a child leaves, the Center, the staff like to give them something to take home. It could be a stuffed animal, a blanket, or art supplies — anything they can keep and call their own, Wacker said.

If community members want to help the center out, they can donate something to give to children, or prepackaged snacks or juice boxes for kids who will be at the center for a long time, Wacker said.

The center employs five full-time staff members and two part-time medical professionals, Wacker said. It is funded primarily through grants, the United Way and fundraisers.

A surge in cases

This year, the center has been busier than ever before, Wacker said.

“Our phones literally are ringing off the hook,” she said. “Every day from open to close, we’re seeing kids right now.”

Wacker believes the main reason for the increase in cases is the pandemic, she said.

Schools are the primary reporters of child abuse and sexual abuse. Teachers see and hear things from students that can raise the alarm. When schools went to remote learning in the spring, the number of reports went down, Wacker said.

Schools are again making reports, now that most of them are back to in-person classes. Additionally, the pandemic has made life more stressful for many, with social isolation and economic hardship. This has probably contributed to the increase in cases, Wacker said.

The number of cases was rising from year to year even before the pandemic, Wacker said.

“I don’t think (the rise in cases) is because child abuse hasn’t always been there. I think because there’s more awareness and knowledge,” Wacker said. “I think it just comes with more education and awareness and people know how to respond better.”

It is good that cases are being reported, even though it’s difficult to deal with more cases, she said.

“It really is a double-edged sword. We don’t want to see an increase in numbers, but we’re helping more kids who are victims,” Wacker said. “If I could do one thing in the world, I would end child abuse and put myself out of a job. But I’m glad we’re here, because I’m a realist and I know that’s not possible.”

Difficult but rewarding

For Wacker and her staff, the work is challenging regardless of the number of victims, she said.

“We have to be very cognizant about taking care of ourselves. We do a lot of training around trauma, and how secondary trauma can affect you and ways to stay healthy and work through that,” she said. “I make sure my staff have ongoing education and training around that.”

Wacker and her staff do debriefings at the end of each day. The goal is to leave what they’ve heard at work, and not let it trouble them at home, she said.

Even with training and debriefings, the job can be hard to handle. But it also can be rewarding, though, for people who are passionate about it, Wacker said.

“It’s hard stuff. It’s just a hard subject matter to deal with, and it’s very sensitive,” she said. “The reward comes in that you’re helping these kids and families, so that really offsets the challenges that we see. My staff are all very passionate, and they love the work they do. You couldn’t do this work if you weren’t passionate and didn’t care.”